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With oil exploration on hold, Coast Guard scaling back its Arctic presence

Alaska Dispatch
Coast Guard Cutter Sycamore crewmembers test the vessel's Spilled Oil Recovery System (SORS) near Barrow, Alaska. July 31, 2012. Kelly Parker / USCG

The U.S. Coast Guard is reducing its presence in the Arctic this summer, a result of budget cuts and a lack of traffic in the region as Royal Dutch Shell takes a hiatus from the drilling that brought much attention to the region last year.

The Kodiak Daily Mirror via The Associated Press reports that the extent of the decrease is still being debated by officials.

Last summer, the Coast Guard deployed helicopters, a C-130 fixed-wing aircraft and Coast Guard vessels to the Arctic Ocean to provide full-time search and rescue coverage as Shell pursued exploratory oil and gas drilling on the Alaska's offshore waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

But with Shell's announcement that the company is suspending 2013 Arctic drilling operations and ConocoPhillips indicating it will not pursue Arctic exploration this summer, it's unclear whether additional Coast Guard support will be necessary.

According to the Kodiak Daily Mirror, the Coast Guard presence in the Arctic last summer included helicopters stationed at a Barrow hangar and a cutter offshore. Other Coast Guard crews tested cold-weather equipment or conducted medical and veterinary visits to villages. Those missions may not be conducted this summer. If the Coast Guard does have a presence in Alaska's Arctic, it may not be in Barrow, but possibly in Kotzebue, where the Alaska National Guard has a hangar.

According to the Daily Mirror, Alaska National Guard spokeswoman Kalei Rupp said the Coast Guard has signed an agreement for use of a 13,068 square-foot hangar.

The lease is not long-term. Rupp told the Daily Mirror the facility will be used for two weeks in July and another two weeks in the fall.

The AP reports that reductions in the Arctic could mean more aircraft would be available to cover commercial fishing in Southcentral and Southwest Alaska.

Correction: This story originally identified Kalei Rupp as a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard. She is a spokeswoman for the Alaska National Guard. Also, the story wrongly attributed speculation of Coast Guard's Arctic presence this summer. The story was updated May 6, 2013, to correct the errors.