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Begich panel considers deepwater port to support Arctic shipping

Alex DeMarban
Loren Holmes photo

With ship traffic increasing in the warming Arctic Ocean, many in government and industry contend that Alaska needs its first deepwater port that can host everything from huge ice-breaking ships to small boats while supporting oil-spill responses, rescue missions and refueling operations.

But where to put the port, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars? How deep should it be? Should government or industry pay for it? And what other services, such as an airport, ought to accompany it?

Those were among the questions considered Monday at a roundtable convened by US Sen. Mark Begich to jump-start talks about how to prepare for new shipping, tourism and resource development off Alaska's little-developed western and northern coasts.

The number of vessels crossing the Bering Strait -- 53 miles wide at its narrowest point  -- has doubled in recent years with some 400 trips recorded in 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard has said.

The Anchorage meeting was the first in a series dealing with how to prepare for increased ship traffic in the Arctic, said Begich, chair of the Senate's Commerce subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.

They will be partly educational, designed to better inform Begich’s Beltway colleagues, who don't always grasp Arctic issues. Some don't understand why, for example, the US should spend millions on new icebreakers if climate change is melting the ice. (Answer: Sea ice is still present in Alaska's Arctic much of the year.)  Arctic ship traffic could take off if Shell or other companies planning to explore the Beaufort and Chukchi seas discover petroleum, sending agencies scrambling to build infrastructure.  

Without quick planning, "Alaska is going to be the tip of the spear in resolving this rapidly, which won't be a fun situation," Begich said. "It takes public infrastructure resources. We have to convince people Alaska is not like California. It's north, it's big and we are an Arctic nation."

The US Army Corps of Engineers and the state Transportation Department are working together to study the best location for a deepwater port. More than a dozen candidates range from Nunivak Island to Bethel to Barrow, as well as Cape Blossom near Kotzebue  and Port Clarence near Nome, said Col. Reinhard Koenig, head of the Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska

This fall, the state and Army Corps plan to carve the candidates down to four or fewer. They plan to complete the study in late 2014, Koenig said.  

Many of the dozen or so panel participants, including representatives from Native corporations and shipping outfits, seemed to agree the best solution is a port built with public-private financing that supports a broad range of uses -- from tourist ships to Coast Guard cutters to services that support oil and mining activity.

A Russian icebreaker's successful effort this winter to deliver much-needed fuel to the community of Nome, with an escort by the Coast Guard's only functioning icebreaker, the Healy, provided a perfect example of why the Coast Guard needs a stronger Arctic presence, said Rear Adml. Thomas Ostebo, head of the Coast Guard in Alaska. The Healy had originally planned to sail to its home port in Seattle, as it usually does in winter, but stuck around to help.  

"We need to take the long view," he said, including whether airports, a road, rail systems, or pipelines should be built at the port.

Such services could help boost business in Alaska: Empty freighters traveling internationally could pick up cargo from Alaska, such as ore or frozen fish.        

Participants, including commissioners for the state transportation and environmental conservation departments, also said a deepwater Arctic port provides a number of national benefits, including increased homeland security.

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