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Demand for Arctic infrastructure high despite Shell's departure

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 29, 2015

Shell's plans to abandon its quest for oil off Alaska's coast removes a huge presence from the U.S. Arctic, but the call for new icebreakers and the region's first deep-water port isn't diminishing.

In fact, it may grow louder.

Some 30 Shell ships this summer provided an added measure of safety that will be gone next year, but international traffic is expected to continue rising even in the oil giant's absence, said Reggie Joule, mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough.

Without Shell, the region is more at risk of a dangerous oil spill or a life-threatening tragedy at sea, he argued.

"We are all pretty aware that the Coast Guard in Alaska is pretty challenged in terms of how they are resourced," Joule said.

Shell's pullout -- after the company completed a single well that didn't produce the oil sought -- will mean about 80 or so less transits through the Bering Strait.

But the growth in the region is expected to continue, said Capt. Charles Cashin, second in command for the U.S. Coast Guard's Alaska district.

Large commercial ships with lots of fuel onboard are increasingly bound for countries in Asia after crossing the strait from northern Russia, said Cashin. Adventure tourism is also on the rise. And some Alaska subsistence hunters are going farther afield as melting sea ice makes for tougher hunting.

An early estimate shows there may be close to 500 Bering Strait transits this summer -- some representing the same ships crossing more than once. That compares to 350 last year, said Cashin.

In a trip that highlights the opening of the Arctic, the 80-foot motor yacht Andros crossed the Northwest Passage through Canada twice this summer, part of a "proof of concept" attempt by the vessel's crew to show it could be done, said Cashin.

"We don't know of anyone else who has done this before," said Cashin, adding that the Coast Guard tracked the journey in part by following blog posts and communicating with the Canadian government.

The Andros' journey from the Arctic Circle near Alaska to the Arctic Circle in the Atlantic Ocean east of Canada -- and back again -- began in mid-August, Cashin said. It ended Tuesday, after 46 days and eight hours, with the next stop in King Cove on the Alaska Peninsula before the Andros heads to Oregon.

Another noteworthy journey will come next summer with a 1,200-passenger cruise ship expected to cross the Northwest Passage, said Cashin.

With human activity rising, the Coast Guard expects to maintain about the same presence in the Arctic as it has in the three previous summers, including two helicopters in the region and other vessels, Cashin said.

"The Arctic is still opening," said Mayor Denise Michels of Nome.

Acknowledging the extra activity in the Arctic, President Barack Obama on his recent trip to Alaska proposed accelerating the building of an Arctic icebreaker, an effort that will need congressional approval.

That and other infrastructure is needed to provide emergency response and a national security presence in the region, said Michels.

Nome, a city of 3,800, hopes to be home to the first deep-water port in the U.S. Arctic. The Army Corps of Engineers has worked with the state and the city on the effort.

"The U.S. is still behind on Arctic infrastructure," Michels said, compared to other countries. "In fact, there's more of a pressing need to move forward because the global community is moving forward."

Margaret Williams, director of the U.S. Arctic program for the World Wildlife Fund, said Russia has a contract to export oil to China, one factor in the growing traffic in the region. With Russia rich in coal and other minerals, that shipping isn't expected to slow.

"We'll also see tourism on the rise and with the sea ice continuing to change, making for unpredictable oceanic conditions, communities and vessels need backup and response to these extreme weather systems," she said.

Joule, whose borough contains Kotzebue, where Shell staged some support vessels for its drilling campaign this summer, said entities in the region hope to build a dock at Cape Blossom, south of Kotzebue, with the sea bottom dredged to 28 feet. With Shell giving up its search for oil off Alaska's coasts, the project has one less potential customer needing storage.

But residents would also benefit because cargo ships could tie up there, eliminating the costly process of transferring products bound for stores and villages onto smaller vessels.

And the facility will provide a refuge for some commercial ships.

"There will still be interest in the Bering Strait in the larger context of marine shipping," said Joule.

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