Coastal towns eager for ports as ice melts, ocean traffic picks up

NOME, Alaska -- On a blustery, cloud-covered day along the Bering Sea coast, Joy Baker, harbormaster for the Port of Nome, scanned her computer screen for a list of the ships lined up in Norton Sound waiting to enter the port.

"Yesterday we had seven vessels offshore waiting," Baker said. "Today's a slower day."

With the cold weather setting in, Nome residents were delighted to see fuel barges arrive the previous day to fill the city's oil holding tanks for the long winter. Last year's fuel shipment was delayed until late in the season, requiring the help of America's only operational icebreaker and a Russian oil tanker to cut a path through the frozen sea to the harbor.

The Port of Nome, the regional transportation hub for more than a dozen Bering Strait villages, was packed all summer. Large barges competed for space at the cargo dock while fishing boats and gold dredgers doubled up at the city dock and berthing facilities.

Nome Mayor Denise Michels said gold hunters descended on the city early this year when the Discovery Channel began broadcasting "Bering Sea Gold," a reality TV show. Over the course of the summer, 124 prospectors sought state permits to dredge along Nome's shores. City officials persuaded the state to close permitting after 88 requests were granted.

"We said we can't handle any more," Michels said. "We're maxed out. If we have a storm, we have nowhere to put them."

The popularity of Nome's port extends well beyond the gold dredgers. As the only U.S. port near the Bering Strait, Nome is becoming a regular stop for ships traveling in the Arctic each summer as higher temperatures keep the North Pole waters ice-free for longer periods.

Now Nome and other coastal communities in Alaska want to expand their ports to capitalize on the expected Arctic oil development, long-haul cargo vessels, military traffic and access to cheaper goods.

Nome is one of a handful of top contenders hoping to get funding for a deepwater port. Other Arctic villages are aiming to build medium-draft summer harbor facilities. The communities anticipate linking up to form a network of service providers for Alaska's expanding business and military ships.

The Coast Guard estimates that 410 vessels traveled through the Bering Strait last year, twice as many as in 2008. This summer, an average of 70 vessels operated in the U.S. Arctic each day, a volume that the Coast Guard predicts will dramatically increase as Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other oil companies explore for oil and gas in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Alaska has more coastline than all other U.S. states combined. But the Port of Nome is the only harbor along Alaska's north and west shores equipped to handle medium-draft vessels, such as the Coast Guard's buoy tenders.

None of the region's ports can currently accommodate the large drilling vessels, cargo ships and ice cutters that require more than 30 feet of water. Those vessels must refuel in the Aleutian Island port of Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, located 700 miles south of Nome and 1,100 miles south of the energy industry's Arctic oil and gas leases.

Becoming a midcoast rest stop for Bering Sea ships could be big business for Nome, located about 125 miles south of the Bering Strait and home to 3,500 permanent residents, about half of whom are Native Alaskans. Michels estimated that a deepwater port would provide Nome with at least $1 million in revenue each year.

Another top candidate for a deepwater Arctic port is Kotzebue, a city located just north of the Bering Strait. Leaders from Nome and Kotzebue insist they support each other's port plans, arguing that Alaska will eventually need several new port facilities.

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About This Report

Despite setbacks in Shell's plan to drill for oil in the Arctic, Alaska towns are preparing for another energy rush. E&E follows the march toward drilling in the last frontier state.


Stories in the report


At the top of America, oil brings hope of continued prosperity

BARROW, Alaska -- A small busload of visitors bumped down the gravel road in this Arctic community as Richard Glenn, executive vice president for lands and natural resources at the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., pointed out the city projects that have been built since the oil industry came to town in the 1970s.

New sewer and water lines. The Iñupiat Heritage Center. The Barrow Arctic Research Center. Ilisaġvik College. New elementary and high schools. The senior center.

Turning the corner, the vehicle stopped in front of a gleaming new building still under construction. "This is our new hospital," he said as he gestured toward the Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital. "It will be four times as large as the existing building and have twice the staff."

Later, standing at the Arctic shore as an end-of-summer snow flurry passed overhead, Glenn, a slender Native geologist, surveyed the Barrow landscape and smiled. Thanks in part to the oil industry, he said, the standard of living has dramatically improved for the Inupiat Eskimo people living on Alaska's North Slope.

"We were afraid of Prudhoe Bay even before it was developed," Glenn said. "We were fighting tooth and nail for it not to happen. But it happened, and look what it has done for our people and the prosperity it has provided."


Town on the front lines of the coming oil explosion hopes for a silver lining

WAINWRIGHT, Alaska --- A cold autumn rain was beginning to fall as Hugh Patkotak approached the edge of the Wainwright Lagoon, where a group of scientists were navigating back to town after a day of studying sea life along the village shores.

As the marine biologists unloaded equipment from their small research vessel, Patkotak recalled that not long ago subsistence hunters here rode dog teams onto the frozen tundra each winter to hunt for caribou. Now Patkotak, 65, is firmly rooted in the modern world as a pilot for the North Slope Borough and chairman of the Olgoonik Corp., Wainwright's profit-making arm.

The corporation was hired to coordinate the scientific research conducted this summer along Wainwright Lagoon and on its Arctic shore. Paid for by Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the marine studies will be used to support future oil industry development in the region.

With Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil ASA lining up to explore for oil in the American Arctic, Wainwright is on the front line of a coming oil explosion. Patkotak predicts that if the giants find a huge oil reserve, Wainwright villagers are in for a shock.

"More than likely, it will be overwhelming," he said. "It has social impacts on the interaction between people here. I'd say it's good and bad -- 50-50. ... But I keep hearing my father telling me progress will come whether we like it or not."


Offshore development brings 'life-and-death issues' to the Last Frontier

GIRDWOOD, Alaska -- The Yup'ik Eskimo people of Alaska's St. Lawrence Island, a 90-mile-long piece of land in the middle of the Bering Sea, are at a crossroads in their long history.

For 2,000 years, they've lived on the island, a remnant of the Bering land bridge that once linked Asia and North America. As the world came to their doorstep, the residents of Savoonga and Gambell maintained a subsistence lifestyle focused on harvesting whale and walrus while adapting to the changes around them.

Beginning in the 1600s, the residents endured contact with non-native explorers and fur traders. During the Cold War, the U.S. government set up military sites on the island. More recently, they've seen Bering Strait ship traffic increase near their shores as global warming opens Arctic waters for longer periods each summer.

This summer, they witnessed the next chapter in Alaska's saga as Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ships navigated past their lands on the way to the oil fields of America's Arctic waters.

Now, as oil development begins in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, the people of St. Lawrence Island, like other Natives throughout Alaska, are seeking an increased voice in the federal and state plans for their future.

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