Limited resources may force Coast Guard to get creative during next Arctic traffic jam

This summer, the American Arctic buzzed with activity as record numbers of oil industry, long-haul shipping, research and tourism vessels navigated Alaska's northern waters. With global warming opening Arctic sea lanes for longer stretches, the Coast Guard set up shop in Barrow for its first summerlong Arctic Shield operation to oversee the increased marine traffic.

Teams of Coast Guard helicopter pilots and support staff rotated through town every three weeks, competing with oil industry workers and other visitors for scarce hotel rooms and rental cars (EnergyWire, Aug. 24).

By late October, the northern ice began returning to the North Slope, closing off the Arctic waters. Now the Coast Guard is planning for next year's operations aimed at laying the groundwork for future national security patrols, search-and-rescue support, and pollution control efforts along Alaska's northern shores.

This year's deluge of people and vessels in the Arctic surprised Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard's 17th District.

"At one point this summer, we had a clutter of ships to manage there," he said. "We didn't know [the growth in ship traffic] would happen as fast as it did.

"One of the big things that we're concerned about is that we currently don't have a very good maritime domain awareness offshore," he said. "We don't know all the activity that's going on. We were constantly surprised."

To keep tabs on this summer's North Slope traffic, the Coast Guard moved two helicopters, the national security cutter Bertholf and a variety of smaller ships to the North Slope. Despite the heightened activity, the July-through-October operation stayed under its projected $3.2 million budget.

But the limited resources made it difficult to keep an eye on the more than 3,000 miles of northern and western Alaska Coast while overseeing Royal Dutch Shell PLC's drilling operations. The company's drill rigs were located in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas 400 miles apart, roughly the distance from Washington, D.C., to Boston.

"We learned a lot about how hard it is to operate between the two locations," Ostebo said. "We thought we could manage both of those spots with one vessel, but we ended up moving the national security cutter up there, which gave us an offshore helicopter. That added a lot of value to what we were doing."

Ostebo said the region's traffic problems are worse than they might be because no international sea lanes have been designated in the Arctic and through the Bering Strait.

"There are really no vessel traffic separation or shipping lanes in Alaska other than in Prince William Sound and into Anchorage," Ostebo noted. Meanwhile, the Aleutian Islands, the Arctic and southeastern Alaska "are seeing quantum leaps in traffic and tonnage and petroleum products going through there," he said.


Working without a port

The Coast Guard learned valuable lessons about operating in the Arctic's unpredictable summer weather. "When the weather is warmer and the ice is gone, you'd think there's less risk," Ostebo said. "But in the summer you typically have a lot of fog," which limits visibility and sometimes prohibits helicopter flights.

In setting up every operation, "the weather gets a huge vote in everything that's going on," he observed. "Shell can say when they want to start drilling, but they're not going to make it up there unless the ice is gone. We can try to respond to offshore incidents, but fog, rain and ice influence our daily decisions."

Federal officials also were forced to operate without nearby port facilities. The Coast Guard's largest vessels had to refuel and resupply at Unalaska's port of Dutch Harbor, more than 1,000 miles from the North Slope. The medium-sized ships were able to stop at the Port of Nome, which is about half that distance.

To streamline those operations, Ostebo is considering refueling Coast Guard ships offshore next year, a practice that Shell followed during this drilling season.

"In order to work around the fact that there is no port up there, Shell transferred their fuel at sea," he said. "They moved a lot of fuel -- almost 1 million gallons -- around offshore. And they transferred their people by helicopter instead of coming into a port.

"They used technology and innovative ways to get around [the lack of] shore infrastructure. I think the Coast Guard is going to have to do some of that as well."

State officials are eager to build ports to service the increasing traffic in the American Arctic. Several coastal communities, notably Kotzebue and Nome, are already making plans for construction of deepwater ports near their communities (EnergyWire, Nov. 19).

In the coming weeks, a preliminary study on where to locate a new deep-draft Arctic port in Alaska is expected to be released by the Alaska Transportation and Public Facilities Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The state Legislature has also authorized its own port analysis.

Ostebo favors use of Alaska's natural ports, such as the deepwater site at Port Clarence near Nome. But he conceded that "the jury is still out" on where or when a new port might be built.

Next year -- search and rescue

The Coast Guard is already planning for Arctic Shield 2013, which will focus on search-and-rescue training along Alaska's northern shores. "I'm worried about mass rescue offshore," Ostebo said. "What would happen if a cruise ship had a problem? What would happen if a helicopter carrying 25 people went down?

"We have a responsibility to start looking carefully at that because, quite frankly, that's a higher likelihood than a Macondo-like event offshore," he said, referring to the 2010 BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ostebo gave high marks to this summer's Coast Guard oil recovery training in offshore Barrow. Using Styrofoam and other materials to simulate ice, the sessions were focused on oil skimming equipment that had been redesigned for cold-weather conditions. "We were able to keep the skimmer from clogging, so that was a good outcome," he said.

However, Native leaders and some environmentalists want the federal government and oil industry to prove they can clean up oil spills in ice-laden Alaskan waters. So far the Coast Guard training exercises haven't used petroleum products because of the potential environmental damage they could cause.

"It would require a number of folks within our government to get on board with actually putting oil in the water," Ostebo said. "Getting EPA, [Interior] and other folks to allow that -- that has to be a thoughtful decision. And right now I don't think anybody is willing to pull the trigger on that."

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