ARCTIC DRILLING:

Coast Guard monitoring, enforcement feel pinch of sequester

The Coast Guard is cutting back its Arctic operations this summer to meet the across-the-board federal budget cuts imposed by Congress under sequestration.

Coast Guard officials are completing plans for a scaled-back Arctic monitoring and enforcement program, which might be based out of Kotzebue along Alaska's northwestern coast.

Because of budget cuts, the Arctic Shield 2013 program is likely to be conducted during July and September only. Last year's operations, which ran through the four-month summer season, were based out of Barrow.

Despite the operational reductions, Coast Guard officials said that search-and-rescue operations will continue in the region.

"We're going to cut our aircraft and vessel hours, but that doesn't affect our critical missions," said Lt. Veronica Colbath, external affairs officer with the Coast Guard's 17th District.

"If there are mariners in distress, we're going to respond," she added. "Search and rescue for us is certainly a priority, especially here in Alaska."

Last year, the Coast Guard's Arctic operations were based in Barrow primarily because of the city's proximity to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, where Royal Dutch Shell PLC had proposed to explore for oil.

Due to equipment failures and other delays, however, Shell was able to drill only top hole wells at the sites.

Earlier this year, Shell dropped its 2013 plans to explore for oil off Alaska's northern shores. Since then, ConocoPhillips also has suspended its proposed 2014 oil exploration for the Chukchi Sea (EnergyWire, April 11).

Coast Guard officials say moving this summer's Arctic operations to Kotzebue would give their patrols and emergency responders better access to the increasingly congested Bering Strait.

Shipping, tourism and research vessel traffic has been steadily increasing in the region as the Arctic Ocean remains ice-free for longer periods each summer. Last summer, 480 vessels navigated through the Bering Strait waters, more than double the 220 vessels recorded in 2008.

"There's a lot of traffic through the Bering Strait, and it's a very narrow area with basically no vessel routing scheme," Colbath said.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp in April warned Congress that increased ship traffic in the Bering Sea has created a growing "potential for disaster" (E&E Daily, April 24).

In Kotzebue, the Coast Guard also would have access to the National Guard hangar and housing facilities, luxuries that weren't available in Barrow. "We're looking at where we can be most effective and use the resources and infrastructure that are already in place," Colbath said.

Last year, the Coast Guard ended up spending $60,000 a month to rent a private hangar in Barrow with limited office facilities. Although Barrow is not likely to be the Coast Guard's forward operating location this year, the agency will continue to base some surface and air patrol facilities in the region.

Coast Guard officials are also working with federal, state, local, industry and Native officials to develop a blueprint for responding to a major oil spill in the Arctic.

Begun in January, that "spill of national significance," or SONS, exercise will include a June seminar in Anchorage.

"The tribal members on the North Slope and everyone in the Arctic region wants to make sure that what's important to them doesn't get lost when big federal systems are created for responding to a SONS incident," Colbath said.

"This is a huge learning lesson for all of the people that are participating in this."

The Coast Guard also will test its cold-water towing equipment in an exercise with the Canadian Coast Guard in the waters off Port Clarence, just south of the Bering Strait.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard's two operating icebreakers will be based in the Arctic this summer. The cutter Healy will take part in scientific work through the agency's Research and Development Center.

The heavy-duty cutter Polar Star was reactivated earlier this year after a four-year, $57 million overhaul.