Nome Fuel Delivery Exposes Serious Concerns for Arctic Drilling

If We Have Trouble Delivering Fuel on Land, How Would We Handle a Winter Oil Spill in the Arctic Ocean?

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker vessel Renda Tuesday evening.

By Kiley Kroh

Today the Russian tanker Renda, escorted by the United States’ only operating icebreaking vessel, will attempt to make its final push in delivering much-needed fuel to the remote, icebound community of Nome, Alaska.  The ships’ progress has been impeded by high winds, strong currents, brutal cold, and thick sea ice. They moved just 50 feet on Tuesday and slowed even further on Wednesday.  With a 25-foot ice ridge still blocking access to the harbor, the tanker will be forced to attempt offloading its cargo through a mile-long hose to shore.

The tanker Renda and ice-breaker Healy arrive in the area of the ice-choked Nome harbor today.  Photo KNOM.

Ordinarily, the last delivery is made prior to the ice closing in, but this year it was delayed by a “monster storm” that hit Alaska in early November covering an area twice the size of Texas.  The tempest produced hurricane-force winds, blizzard conditions, coastal flooding, and spurred evacuations of many coastal communities.  The 3,500 residents of Nome, a city located on the western coast of Alaska, rely on tanker barges to deliver home heating oil, gasoline, and diesel for the winter months. The village has enough fuel to last until March, but ice in the Bering Sea won’t clear until midsummer.  In a bid to avoid the $9 per gallon gasoline that would likely result from flying fuel into the isolated city, the Nome-based Sitnasuak Native Corporation signed a contract to have a double-hulled Ice Classed Russian tanker deliver the 1.3 million gallons of fuel.

The unprecedented effort has captured worldwide attention and also brought serious concerns to light about the nation’s insufficient resources and infrastructure in the Arctic.  With the President of Royal Dutch Shell expressing confidence yesterday that his company will begin drilling in the fragile Arctic waters off Alaska’s northern coast this summer, addressing these concerns becomes even more urgent.

The Coast Guard is responsible for search and rescue, spill response and the national defense missions in the Arctic.  Their capacity in the region is limited and includes woefully inadequate icebreaking capacity.

The Coast Guard’s only working icebreaker is the 12 year-old Healy, which is mainly deployed on scientific missions and can only break through thinner ice. It has two other heavy-duty polar icebreakers, but both are out of commission at the moment. By comparison, Russia currently operates 20 icebreakers, including seven powerful nuclear-powered vessels, and China is in the process of building its second icebreaker.

As the Arctic melts at an alarming rate, the infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic is incapable of supporting the imminent increase in activity that will come from greater access to marine resources. Alaska has no deepwater offshore port or on-shore harbor along its western or North Slope shores.  As a recent E&E report explains, the Army Corps of Engineers has undertaken a three-year, $3 million study to determine whether or not to build at least one deepwater port in the US Arctic.  However, “once a site is selected, the financing, planning, design and construction could take 20 years to complete. Industry officials privately estimate that the cost of the project could climb to $1 billion.”

The extremely harsh environmental conditions complicate any effort to industrialize the Arctic, and put pristine natural resources in jeopardy.  Testifying before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard in July, Dr. Andrew Metzger of the University of Alaska Fairbanks stated,

The rigors of the Arctic cannot be overstated.  People and facilities in this environ must contend with extreme cold, permanently frozen soil (permafrost) and lack of daylight in winter. In addition, coastal communities and marine infrastructure must contend with intense wind and wave conditions, subsea permafrost, accelerating erosion and potentially catastrophic hazards from sea ice. These harsh conditions will significantly shape development of marine infrastructure in the Arctic as well as stakeholder activities.”

An upcoming report from the Center for American progress, due to be released later this month, will examine in greater detail America’s deficiencies in regard to Arctic infrastructure and oil spill response preparedness, and suggest steps to be taken before activities, such as drilling, commence in the world’s last unspoiled frontier.

Today the world watches as the Renda and Healy wait until daylight to begin the final stage of their 10-day journey.  If the mission is successful, it will bring temporary relief to the residents of Nome.  But the challenges associated with a permanent U.S. presence in the Arctic will be much more difficult to overcome.

— Kiley Kroh is Associate Director of Ocean Communications at the Center for American Progress.

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10 Responses to Nome Fuel Delivery Exposes Serious Concerns for Arctic Drilling

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Of course the President of Shell expressed confidence. And the response to the inevitable? There will be much wringing of hands – but accidents happen folks! ME

  2. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    If We Have Trouble Delivering Fuel on Land, How Would We Handle a Winter Oil Spill in the Arctic Ocean?

    Get real, we wouldn’t. The idea of any effective action on a winter oil spill is simply ludicrous. There may be some small pretense of action, but nothing real.

    Winter sea ice may be thinning but it is still formidable, and will be for decades to come. Just normal operations will be extremely testing. Coping with a disaster, not possible unless we are very very lucky.

    As the ice becomes more manageable the storms get less manageable, so the situation will not get better.

    In such an environment disaster is inevitable, response an impossibility. But we are so totally addicted to oil we will proceed, kidding ourselves we can manage the risk.

  3. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    But that was the point of your post. I do realise, but just see inevitability.

  4. Joan Savage says:

    In December, Gazprom lost an offshore rig in the Arctic, with the loss of fifty lives. Even so, another Gazprom rig was on route to Murmansk.

    It seems obvious, but even the Russian icebreakers probably cannot move fast enough to provide emergency response for the kinds of accidents that occur with offshore rigs.

  5. sailrick says:

    There will probably be a new reality tv show called “The Worlds Most Dangerous Oil Drilling and Transport”

    not good for the crab fishermen either

  6. Colorado Bob says:

    I watched the Nov. 9th storm that set this in motion . In the 2 days as it pasted Nome , the temperature there was running 11F above average. Night and day .

    Last year, another Nov. storm covered the whole state in ice. These ice events , spell big trouble for plant & animal life.

  7. Colorado Bob says:

    The polar bear stories weren’t picked up this week , they deserve better –
    Some Hudson Bay polar bears nearing starvation due to climate change: experts

    “If the bears can’t get back onto the ice until late November or early December now, 20 years from now it will be three weeks later than that. They’re at their limit of their ability right now to fast for that length of (time).”

    Peter Ewins, director of species conservation at World Wildlife Fund Canada, was at the Hudson Bay community of Churchill, Man., in November to observe the state of the bears first-hand.

    As the temperature hovered around freezing, Ewins watched starving polar bears nosing around old grain stores and garbage dumps while others were found dead. The odd berry patch and goose egg nest isn’t enough to sustain the massive mammal, he said.

    “The weaker individuals, the ones who are less proficient at hunting, they were in poorer condition and it was visible this year,” Ewins said. “It’s just an indicator that those less fit, poorer quality bears were really up against the wall already.”

    Plight of the Ice Bear

    . In 2004, researchers saw four drowned polar bears floating in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea following a storm. Those bears died while attempting to find sea ice, which had receded hundreds of kilometers to the north. The scientists surmised that two-dozen other bears, seen swimming before the storm, also probably perished. In 2008, researchers documented an astonishing 9-day non-stop swim of 687 kilometers by a radio-collared bear who departed from Alaska’s coast and headed north across open ocean to reach the shrinking sea ice. She survived the journey but lost 22% of her body weight and her yearling cub.

    While I considered these issues, a small animate form took shape in the violent swells beyond the bow. I could hardly believe what I saw: another polar bear swimming in the open ocean. Leaning precariously over the railing with my camera, I pressed the shutter as the animal crested a wave rolling toward the ship. A moment later, the bear was alongside the vessel; then she quickly receded behind us as we continued southward. I was preoccupied with questions: Where did she come from? Where was she headed? Would she survive a very long swim, or would she succumb to fatigue and drown before

    I hope everyone in Nome faces the fate .

  8. Colorado Bob says:

    And if, in addition to being endangered by global warming and vanishing sea ice, polar bears are also subjected to increasing human disturbance, killed by hunters and poachers, and exposed to dangerous contamination in their shrinking habitat, they will decline into oblivion even faster. Of particular concern is the active push for oil exploration, production and shipping in many crucial regions of polar bear habitat as the Arctic Ocean becomes increasingly ice-free. “It is obvious that an oil spill would be devastating to polar bears,” says Stirling. “The contamination will almost certainly kill them.” Polar bears have no natural aversion to oil and, in fact, may be dangerously attracted to it. Whether by swimming in oil-covered seas or travelling on oil-soaked ice, they would become contaminated in the event of a spill, and the consequences would be deadly. Once polar bear fur is fouled with oil, Stirling explains, it loses its insulating properties. Shivering bears will then attempt to groom their fur by licking themselves clean, and will ingest the toxic oil. Kidney failure and death will almost invariably follow. Because resources to contain an arctic oil spill are not currently available, and no proven technology exists to clean up oil in icy arctic seas, the danger to polar bears from oil drilling and transport in their habitat is indisputable and significant.

  9. Pangolin says:

    If only there were some way to reach into the ground under Nome and use the difference between geothermal heat and the Alaskan cold to create electrical power. Like a refrigerator working in reverse: a sort of “heat pump” if you will.

    Of course you would need a pretty big drilling rig and a fair bit of pipe and everyone knows that there isn’t any of that stuff above the arctic circle.

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thanks for this Colorado Bob. I can still remember the first time, as a little kid, I saw a polar bear in the weird environment of Taronga zoo in Sydney and it was love at first sight.

    I saw a research brief on Science Daily some time ago about the first recorded hybrid of Polar and Grizzly in the wild so some genes may remain but the animal seems doomed.

    We are all collectively responsible for this, amongst many other tragedies, and more to come. While we watch all these monumental tragedies unfold, I hope we have enough humanity left to mourn and to hang our heads in guilt and shame, ME