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Begich Introduces Revised Arctic Science Bill

U.S.  Senator Mark Begich introduced a revised Arctic science bill today to address the nation’s need for increased Arctic research.  As the Arctic sees an expanded presence of industry activity like oil and gas exploration, marine shipping, and tourism and at the same time undergoes environmental changes, more must be understood about the region.

Begich’s bill, the Arctic Research, Monitoring and Observing Act of 2012, amends a previous bill he introduced on the subject by providing a stable revenue stream to pay for it by tapping an existing fund source intended for this purpose.

“There is a greater demand to better understand the Arctic ecosystem as we enter the twenty-first century. As we see increased traffic in our northern waters and shores, we also see our polar ice caps melting, with a new all-time low in Arctic sea ice this year” said Begich. “This bill helps us better understand potential threats to marine mammals and other wildlife, impacts on subsistence resources, and spill prevention and response. The legislation will further fund this needed research using the expertise of the existing Arctic Research Commission and an established, but mostly untapped, endowment for the work.”

The revised language for the Arctic Research, Monitoring and Observing Act of 2012 is an alternative to Begich’s earlier bill, S. 2147 and expands the authority of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC) to make research grants, funded through an existing Arctic research endowment.  The Environmental Improvement and Restoration Fund (EIRF) was created in 1997 after resolution of a case involving Alaska oil leases in the Arctic known as “Dinkum Sands.”  Settlement of the long-standing case freed up $1.6 billion in oil royalties held in escrow, half of which was deposited in the EIRF.

Of the fund’s annual earnings, 20 percent is currently dedicated to the North Pacific Research Board (NPRB), which mainly researches fishery related matters in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.  With that board’s mission only nominally including the Arctic, the USARC is a more appropriate body to manage this new research program.  It was formed in 1984 to develop and recommend an integrated national research policy for the Arctic and help establish a national program to implement the policy.  Commissioners would be joined by representatives from local government and others on a panel to review and select projects for funding.

Begich’s new bill would amend the annual EIRF earnings distribution with 25 percent going to USARC for Arctic related research projects. It would also increase the NPRB share from 20 percent to 25 percent, and designate 10 percent for the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS).  AOOS, part of the NOAA’s national Integrated Ocean Observing System, supports baseline research on oceanic variables such as currents, temperature, and acidity, to better inform researchers, decision makers, and promote economic, environmental and social benefits to our nation.

Using 60 percent of the interest on the EIRF in this way helps address the Department of Interior’s research needs in the Arctic, given its responsibilities over public lands and outer continental shelf oil and gas development. The remaining 40 percent would remain for the Interior Department and related agencies for deferred maintenance in National Parks and Forests and related projects. 

Under this formula and under existing interest rates, annual funding available for research grants by both USARC and NPRB would be approximately $12.5 million.  This amount may be reduced as EIRF investments in Treasury bills are rolled over at current low rates of return.  It is hoped the EIRF principle could be increased in the future to allow for stable level of funding.

The legislation would also require the USARC and NPRB to adopt strict conflict of interest standards and broaden board participation in the NPRB decision-making process.

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