It's going to be a hectic summer for the US Coast Guard in the Arctic. Even if Arctic drilling protesters, who are expected this summer after stops in Seattle and Dutch Harbor, don't materialize, there will still be plenty to do, according to a Coast Guard report to the Alaska Legislature's Northern Waters Task Force.
• Shell plans to transport 300 workers to and from its two drill rigs on a weekly basis.
• Shipping traffic through the northern sea route above Russia will increase. "We do have some concerns up there," said Capt. Buddy Custard, chief of staff for the Coast Guard in Alaska.
Readying 'deployable specialized forces'
Based on recent protests in New Zealand that targeted a drilling vessel headed for Alaska, the Coast Guard expects some action from protesters this summer. As Shell Oil stages some 22 ships in Dutch Harbor on their way north, the Coast Guard is concerned about any disruption those protests might cause in the busy fishing port.
"Because of Shell and the emotional issues that are surrounding drilling in the Arctic -- whether you are for it or against it, it is very emotional. And with that, we have seen some protest activity," Custard said. "Our job in the Coast Guard is that if there is any protest activity that it does not disrupt a port, it does not disrupt commerce."
Custard noted that activist efforts themselves are not illegal, but the Coast Guard will monitor them to make sure they don't interfere with commerce and are otherwise lawful. To do so, a force of small boats called "deployable specialized forces" will be staged in Dutch Harbor by June.
"Americans are allowed free speech and Americans are allowed to protest," he noted. "If there is protest activity, they are allowed to protest as long as it is safe and lawful."
Once Shells' vessels leave Dutch Harbor and head for the Arctic where drilling is scheduled to begin in early July, the Coast Guard will mobilize to that area as well, providing the biggest Coast Guard presence the Arctic has ever seen. The plan is to stage two medium-range helicopters and communications infrastructure in Barrow because it's midway between drilling operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
Shell's oil rig Kulluk was in Captains Bay in Unalaska in 2010 and 2011. Offshore Systems Inc. has expanded its landfill dock area for oil rigs, support vessels, and equipment storage there. The Kulluk's plans for oil exploration last year were blocked because of air quality issues.
Colbath said the Coast Guard is reviewing various housing options, focusing on buildings with large open areas such as the high school gymnasium. The agency will not interfere with tourism by renting hotel rooms, she said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D, Alaska, supports Arctic oil drilling.
"I believe we're at the cusp of new era of Arctic development – and poised for a renaissance in Alaska's oil and gas industry," Begich said. "For the first time in a generation, I believe we'll see exploration in the Arctic this summer."
Begich cited a study by two Alaska think tanks – the Institute of Social and Economic Research and Northern Economics – which estimate more than 50,000 jobs will be created nationwide from Arctic offshore oil and gas development.
Greenpeace warns of disaster
But Greenpeace oil campaigner Dan Howells questioned the adequacy of the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement's approval of Shell's spill response plan for drilling exploratory wells in Alaska's Chukchi Sea this summer.
"This plan might have made sense in a cozy Washington, D.C. office, but try reading it in the middle of an Alaska blizzard with gale-force winds in November. This agency knows full well that a major spill in the Arctic would be an environmental disaster, but they've decided yet again to put corporate interests above clear scientific evidence. This plan puts America's natural heritage on very thin ice, and the global warming implications are even more serious. Shell's gotten what it wanted this round, but when it comes to public opinion, the battle hasn't even begun," Howells said.
While the Coast Guard's plan is to initially put two ships in the Arctic to protect drilling operations from unlawful protest, that is only a piece of the puzzle. With hundreds of workers flying to and from the drilling rigs, many more vessels in the area, and all the infrastructure needs of the increased activity, such as greater fuel and equipment needs, for example, there will be a surge in opportunities for disaster, Custard said. This year's only potential drill operation is from Shell Oil, but next year, ConocoPhillips may be drilling as well as Norway's Statoil. In 2015, Imperial Oil may be also active in the area, he said.
"By 2015 there are potentially four major oil and gas companies operating in the region. That's going to drive a lot of activity — a lot of human activity, a lot of aircraft activity, and a lot of vessel activity," he said. "This is stretching our capabilities. We are going to learn a lot about our future capabilities."
In addition to drilling operations, the Coast Guard is increasing its Arctic presence due to increased traffic through the northern sea route above Russia. According to Custard, Russia has been working hard to make this route a viable option for shippers, building search and rescue stations to drive down the cost of insurance for shippers, and make the route a viable alternative to the Panama Canal. All that increased traffic goes through the Bering Straits, he noted, and there may be a need for a traffic separation scheme, he said.
"We are trying to get ahead of the curve because we see that things are growing exponentially," he said.
Custard said the Coast Guard is waiting to see what activity is seasonal and what is year-round before discussions of establishing a permanent base in the region are breached. The Coast Guard is mobilizing outreach work in the Arctic this summer, too. Custard said it plans to bring doctors, dentists and veterinarians to northern communities as well as holding seminars on boating safety.
"We want to give back to the communities," he said, adding that every time the Coast Guard visits the north, they learn a wealth of information from traditional knowledge.
Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, said he encouraged by the Coast Guard's planned activity in the north this summer. "The Coast Guard is ready to rock and roll," Joule said.
Jim Paulin of The Bristol Bay Times and Dutch Harbor Fisherman contributed to this report.