A much-needed Arctic port study stalled this winter as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers more than 20 different configurations of three possible ports in Northwest Alaska.
The Alaska U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Project Technical Lead and economist Lorraine Cordova told legislators recently that though they had planned to recommend an Arctic port or multiple port configuration by now, the process had been bogged down by too many possible options.
The Arctic port, identified by state and federal policymakers as one of the most critical pieces to the quickly-developing Arctic, started several years ago as a partnership between the state and federal agencies. The Corps of Engineers had narrowed the list of possible ports to three locations -- Nome; Point Spencer, which is north of Nome on a narrow sandbar off the bay of Port Clarence; and Cape Riley, located on the eastern side of the same bay.
But those studying Alaska's Arctic port needs quickly realized no single port was likely going to be sufficient. Instead, it was prudent to consider a combination of several ports that together would provide the needed infrastructure to serve the region, said Cordova.
Unfortunately, having to study multiple ports at once has slowed the process, she said. Each of those ports could have a variety of different configurations -- how deep a draft to dig, what infrastructure is added shoreside, and whether roads should connect the ports, for example, offered many variables for those studying the problem to consider.
"The process is not working as well as I would like," Cordova told legislators at a recent Joint Transportation Committee meeting. "We are now up to 23 alternatives we are looking at. Rather than narrowing it down, we have somehow managed to make it bigger."
That's going to push the planned March deadline for releasing a final recommendation back several months, she said. Now, the corps hopes to have narrowed down the possible port variations to a single recommendation by March so that they can proceed with the final pieces of their study, such as estimating real estate costs and final figures of construction estimates.
But Cordova did say the cost estimate is likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars for the project, a cost that will likely be shared between the federal government and the state. Costs for the construction of the actual ports is typically shared, with federal coffers footing 65 percent of the bill while the state pays for 35 percent. But that's an oversimplified explanation, Cordova said, and doesn't include the cost of infrastructure on land, such as improvements to airport landing strips, road construction or other facilities, the cost of which is generally not federally funded.
Legislators also asked Cordova to estimate when she could imagine the first ship pulling into this Arctic port. If everything went perfectly from here on out, the study is based on a completion date of 2020, she said. But that is unlikely.
"The stars would really have to be aligned for 2020 to occur," she said. "The more pessimistic side of me would put it out at 2030."
Among the things the study, when it is released, will take into consideration are possible mining projects in the region, many of which would benefit greatly from a nearby port.
The study will also describe what the proposed ports will look like, some of which is already starting to come together. The Nome port, for example, would include extending the existing causeway, demolishing the existing breakwater, and adding 400 to 600 feet onto the dock as well as dredging the outer channel to at least 35 feet.
If the port at Cape Riley were constructed, it would be mainly to accommodate shallow draft vessels and would include a road connecting it to Nome. Nome has seen a tremendous amount of barge traffic in recent years, Cordova said, and its small boat harbor is crowded with dredges and other vessels.
Point Spencer is an attractive alternative because it is well protected and has facilities left over from a U.S. Coast Guard LORAN-C (a long range navigation system using low frequency radio signals), which was shuttered in 2010. But putting a road to the Point Spencer site was cost prohibitive, Cordova said, and facilities would have to be built for port users to store equipment as well as fuel tanks and other shoreside equipment.
Cordova said, however, that there was no question from the study that this port or ports were needed. During recent years when Royal Dutch Shell was drilling and exploring in the Arctic, the company was commuting 800 miles from Unalaska just to get to its lease sites -- a distance equivalent to traveling from New York City to Jacksonville, Fla., she noted.
"When you think about the amount of infrastructure on the (East and West) coasts compared to Alaska, it's pretty sobering, I think," she said.
She also said there is no question about the increasing number of ships using the Arctic passage over Russia. In 2013, she reported, 71 vessels went through Arctic waters carrying 1.4 million tons of cargo.
"Both Canada and Russia are building infrastructure, whereas we in the U.S. seem to be doing very little," she noted.
Cordova said the main goal of the Arctic port study was identified last summer and is the guiding principal of the effort. Stakeholders said the limited infrastructure in the region coupled with increased vessel traffic posed risks for accidents and incidents, increased response times for search and rescue, and stood in the way of economic opportunities.
"These were all problems we felt were addressed by this project," Cordova said, adding that the effort also brought Alaska into the minds of more policymakers. "We also wanted to raise awareness of the U.S. as an Arctic nation. I think awareness is picking up steam as we are going along."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.