Aging infrastructure adds to woes of Alaska-bound fuel tanker

The Russian tanker Renda is slowly steaming toward Nome, Alaska, with a long-awaited load of diesel fuel and gasoline for the city's 3,600 residents.

Nome's previous fuel delivery was aborted in early November when an unseasonably early storm iced up the city's port at a time when the U.S. Coast Guard's only operational icebreaker, the Healy, was hundreds of miles away.

When the Russian tanker arrives in Nome -- which could happen as soon as today, depending on conditions -- the Healy will be on hand to help open a lane through the region's thick ice cover. But state officials concede that downloading the fuel will be a challenge because Nome's port is too shallow for the Healy's deep hull to navigate close to the city dock.

Alaska's three-member congressional delegation say Nome's fuel crisis is just the latest sign that the federal government is not paying enough attention to the growing needs of the changing American Arctic. As residents of Nome wait for fuel to arrive, Alaska's bipartisan congressional delegation was hammering Washington for not beefing up the U.S. Coast Guard's icebreaking capabilities. Republican Rep. Don Young told Alaska reporters that the federal government needs to act now "because we're going to have a lot more activity up north."

As global warming shrinks the North Pole ice cap and leaves Arctic waters open for longer stretches each summer, the world is sharpening its focus on opportunities in the Arctic. The open waters are attracting new ship traffic and creating new demands for fuel, supplies and emergency response.


But Alaska has no deepwater offshore port or on-shore harbor along its western or North Slope shores. As a result, the United States is ill-equipped to police the Arctic's domestic and international waters, to service the international ship traffic or offer help during weather-related crises, such as Nome's sudden ice storm.

"We're way behind the curve on Arctic infrastructure," said Alaska Democrat Mark Begich, who chairs the Senate Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee. "While other nations are recognizing the opportunities -- and responsibilities -- in the changing Arctic, the United States has not. We've talked about it, studied it and held hearings, but Congress has not committed the resources to actually building it."

Other Arctic nations are charting northern shipping routes that could save time and fuel costs. The nations are also focusing on development of new frontiers for oil, gas and mineral extraction. Canada and Russia are planning new Arctic harbors or are expanding their existing facilities. Under a joint venture with South Korea, Canada plans to ship liquefied natural gas to the Far East.

Now, Alaskan and federal officials are taking a hard look at whether to build at least one deepwater port in the U.S. Arctic. Late last year, Alaska state officials and the Army Corps of Engineers began a three-year, $3 million study to consider where and how to build a marine facility that would cement the United States' role in the Arctic energy and shipping industries.

The study will examine potential locations to site floating, man-made ports that could be anchored several miles offshore to serve as terminals for sea-bound traffic or drilling ships. They will also look for shoreline sites that could be dredged and expanded to allow easier access to cargo ships and provide a safe harbor for long-haul tankers and tourist ships.

The Army Corps-state study will search state shores from Nunivak Island near Alaska's southwestern coast, along the state's zigzagging western shore line, to the frigid North Slope. A steering committee of business, scientific and government experts, recruited to advise the study team, will begin meeting later this month. By the end of the year, the group hopes to narrow down the list of deepwater port candidates, said Don Fore, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Alaska project manager who is heading the study.

Once a site is selected, the financing, planning, design and construction could take 20 years to complete. Industry officials privately estimate that the cost of the project could climb to $1 billion.

Alaska officials see the port as an opportunity to attract new business and provide jobs. "The state has requested that we look at deepwater ports essentially for the purpose of extracting minerals," Fore said.

Commercial interests are already anticipating greater access to the Arctic. This summer, Royal Dutch Shell PLC hopes to begin sinking exploratory oil wells in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. Mining firms are considering capitalizing on the massive coal reserves in northwestern Alaska, as well as the copper and rare-earth mineral resources.

More than ever before, Alaska business leaders are taking a serious look at the business plan for building a deepwater port or harbor along the state's northwest shores, said James Hemsath, deputy director for project development and asset management at the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state financing corporation.

"It's a little more real" for many reasons, Hemsath said. "Mines that were not economic are now becoming economic because of changes in technology, changes in commodity prices. People are more concerned about search and rescue and the ability to support offshore drilling. Those are all starting to line up.

"I'd say there is a fairly reasonable chance that there will be some kind of kind of deepwater Arctic port beginning its permitting within five years," he added. "But that's with my magic eight ball talking."

The nuclear option

In the late 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission proposed creating an artificial deepwater port at Cape Thompson, Alaska, using a highly controversial excavation method: detonating nuclear bombs.

The program was part of the government's post-war Operation Plowshares program, which sought peacetime uses for nuclear power. The port project, detailed in the book "The Firecracker Boys," was eventually dropped due to concerns about its impact on native communities in the region and because the port lacked commercial appeal.

In 1992, the Energy Department released documents disclosing the dark side of the abandoned nuclear port project. According to the previously classified materials, scientists departing from the site left behind a small nuclear waste dump. It is little wonder that some Alaskans still mention "The Firecracker Boys" when discussing proposals to build a deepwater port.

During the ensuing decades, interest waned in building a port in America's frigid north. But today, global warming has changed commercial and military calculations. Since 2005, the Arctic has had the warmest weather on record, causing sea ice to thaw and opening navigation lanes for longer stretches each summer. A recent scientific assessment by the international Arctic Council estimated that by midcentury the Arctic could be nearly ice-free in the summertime. As long-haul shippers take advantage of change, ship traffic is increasing through the Bering Strait and the Arctic's Northwest Passage.

To oversee the increasing sea traffic, the world's Arctic nations in May signed a search-and-rescue treaty. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was on hand at the Nuuk, Greenland, meeting of the Arctic Council, along with officials from Canada, Russia and five other northern countries (ClimateWire, May 13, 2011).

But despite Clinton's promises that the United States will take an active role in overseeing Arctic traffic, a December report from the Government Accountability Office noted that the U.S. Coast Guard lacks maritime ships and on-shore resources needed to respond to emergency calls. The United States has one active heavy-duty icebreaker -- the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Healy, whose home port is in Kodiak, more than 1,200 miles from Barrow. The 1970s-era icebreaker Polar Star has been sidelined for repairs since 2006, and its sister ship, the Polar Sea, has been decommissioned.

Due to budget constraints, the report said, "it is unlikely that the Coast Guard will be able to expand the U.S. icebreaker fleet to meet its statutory requirements, and it may be a significant challenge for it to just maintain its existing level of icebreaking capabilities due to its aging fleet."

By comparison, Russia has a fleet of eight active nuclear-powered icebreakers. China owns the world's largest non-nuclear icebreaker and has funded construction of a second that will be ready by 2013. Sweden, Finland, Canada, South Korea and Japan are also adding to their icebreaking fleets.

Although the federal government is responsible for search and rescue, spill response and the national defense missions in the Arctic, the U.S. military is downplaying the need for adding resources in the region. A Department of Defense report in May on Arctic operations acknowledged that "only U.S.-flagged ice-capable ships provide visible U.S. sovereign maritime presence throughout the Arctic region."

But the report said because "armed conflict" is not expected to break out among the Arctic nations, "the existing defense infrastructure (e.g., bases, ports, and airfields) is adequate to meet near- to mid-term U.S. national security needs. Therefore, [the Defense Department] does not currently anticipate a need for the construction of additional bases or a deep draft port in Alaska between now and 2020."

Who will pay for a port?

In May, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities met with experts from government, the business community and universities to ask for advice on how to pave the way for construction of a U.S. port in Alaska.

Speakers at the two-day meeting quickly concluded that the federal government won't be spearheading the port campaign. "At this point, federal interest is such that if you build it and they have a need to use it, they'll use it," said Fore of the Army Corps. "But nobody [in Washington] is actually stepping up and providing funding or assistance."

Begich said the most promising path for building a port would be to hammer out a cooperative agreement between government agencies and commercial interests. "There are a lot of interests in the Arctic, but no interest in duplicating efforts, which makes a public-private partnership a logical and likely solution," he said. "Industry needs a platform to operate from, the Coast Guard and Navy need a base for their national security missions, and researchers would welcome a field station further out in the field.

"Any venture like this would be cost-prohibitive for any one sector," Begich said. "So bringing together defense, industry and scientific interest in a public-private partnership makes sense."

Among the groups that might consider participating in such a project is the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which has been instrumental in helping build other commercial projects in the state. The authority owns the Delong Mountain Transport System, which includes a shallow port that services the Red Dog zinc mine and had a major role in construction of the Ketchikan Shipyard and the Skagway Ore Terminal.

Begich predicted that growing interest in oil development off Alaska's North Slope will kick-start port construction. "I think interest in Arctic energy will eventually move these studies off their dusty shelves," he said. "The Beaufort and Chukchi seas rank among our nation's top prospects for oil and gas. Iran's current saber rattling over the Strait of Hormuz only makes developing domestic reserves like the Arctic more attractive."

The prospect of developing Alaska's massive coal reserves could also attract new support for building a shipping facility, said Hemsath of the AIMEA. "Coal becomes an entirely different animal altogether," he said. "That's a big brass ring on this."

Alaska mining experts boast that the state has half of the nation's coal reserves. However, those resources are located in remote, environmentally sensitive regions of the state where the terrain is rough and shipping would be limited to the summer months.

Construction of an offshore port or on-shore harbor face serious weather-related challenges, according to Andrew Metzger, an engineering professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

"The rigors of the Arctic cannot be overstated," Metzger said at a Senate hearing in July. "People and facilities in this environ must contend with extreme cold, permanently frozen soil [permafrost] and lack of daylight in winter. In addition, coastal communities and marine infrastructure must contend with intense wind and wave conditions, subsea permafrost, accelerating erosion and potentially catastrophic hazards from sea ice. These harsh conditions will significantly shape development of marine infrastructure in the Arctic as well as stakeholder activities."

But in a recent interview, Metzger said he anticipates that due to increased interest in Arctic resource extraction, Alaska could see construction of two port or harbor facilities in the coming years. "A conventional deep-draft harbor would make extraction of minerals more viable," he said. "So you could see a deep-draft harbor tied to mining and an offshore facility off of the North Slope that would be tied to oil and gas development. Because of the economic aspects, these facilities could pay for themselves."

Lobbying rush

Alaska communities are already beginning to lobby for a chance to host a deepwater port. Barrow, Kotzebue and Nome are all on the short list. A draft report from the state Legislature's Alaska Northern Waters Task Force suggested adding St. Paul Island in the Pribilof Islands and St. Lawrence Island to the list. Other locations frequently mentioned include the Port Clarence area, which is less susceptible to winter storms than cities north of the Bering Strait.

But although most northern Alaska cities would welcome the commercial benefits of a port, some native communities have serious concerns, said state legislator Reggie Joule, who chaired the Alaska Northern Waters Task Force. The task force held a series of community meetings where local residents worried that a deepwater port could hurt their traditional subsistence lifestyle.

"We heard from some people that the environment is very, very fragile and extreme caution needs to be taken in developing those areas," said Joule, who represents Kotzebue. "We heard that development is coming, we don't have any say over it, and while we are very, very concerned, how can we benefit from it? We heard from folks who asked how the increased shipping traffic is going to impact the subsistence harvest, the hunting and fishing by native communities."

Building a port would be just one part of a wide-ranging commercial network that could potentially include shipping facilities, industrial services and housing. Depending on its location, the port might be connected to mining or drilling sites by a railroad or shoreline road. To attract the military, it would also require large airport facilities.

"A port is just that, it's a portal between the sea and the land," Metzger said. "You also have to have some kind of land-based infrastructure."

The port development would most certainly change the face of northern Alaska, he said. "Most of the communities that you see up there have water, wastewater and lodging adequate for the community and maybe a few extra visitors," he noted. "A large influx of people is going to require expansion of shore-side civil infrastructure."

The early port studies must also consider the environmental consequences of the proposed project, said Fore of the Army Corps. "I think the biggest unknowns are the environmental impacts," he said. "What critical habitats do we have up there? How does economic development interface with that? We know the polar bear is an issue and their habitat. How does that play in here? There are so many endangered species up here."

Alaska legislator Joule observed that change is in the air in Alaska. Some of it is being driven by global warming. Some is a product of the federal government, which has encouraged commercial development and oil drilling off Alaska shores and signed the Arctic Council treaty, but is not providing funding for a port or icebreakers.

"We are ill-prepared for these things," Joule said. But, he added, "nobody is going to get in the way to stop anything."

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