Feds Halt Alaska Deep-draft Port Study After Shell Puts Offshore Drilling On Hold

Oct 30, 2015

Offshore drilling bust halts port-expansion study…


Shipping in Arctic waters off Alaska has grown steadily in recent years, largely because of receding sea ice and until recently offshore oil and gas exploration. An average of some 420 vessels pass through the Bering Strait annually. And all that activity requires facilities to handle the ships and their crews.  

“You need a good port,” Papp said, “a harbor of refuge. Someplace where you can get deep-draft ships into, a place where you can do logistics, resupply, and get out of the weather.”

The Coast Guard Cutter Mellon makes way through the Bering Sea during a search and rescue drill earlier this year.
Credit U.S. Coast Guard

Robert Papp is a former Coast Guard commandant who knows the logistical challenges of operating in circumpolar waters. He now serves as U.S. Representative for the Arctic, and he’s an advocate for building a port on the Bering Sea coast to handle larger vessels.

Vice Admiral Charles Michel, the Coast Guard’s vice commandant, says a port there also would help maritime operations farther north, like those supporting Royal Dutch Shell’s offshore d in the Chukchi Sea that had to stage out of Unalaska, a port in the Aleutian Islands.

“To have the nearest ice-free port be a thousand miles away from the potential operating area as human activity increases – that’s a concern,” Michel said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Alaska have since 2011 been studying sites along the Bering Strait where a deep-draft port might be developed to handle the increased shipping. A draft issued by the Corps in March said Nome is the best site for a facility estimated to cost $211 million.

The Army Corps of Engineers draft study released earlier this year suggested expanding and dredging the Port of Nome to enable it to accommodate larger ships.
Credit Army Corps of Engineers

But the agency put the study on hold this week in response to Shell’s decision to halt operations in the Chukchi after it failed to find big hydrocarbon deposits there last summer.

“We’re assessing what the effects of the recent developments in the offshore oil and gas industry may have upon the project,” says Bruce Sexauer, chief of the Corps’ Alaska District civil works branch. He’s been heading up the port study, and he says the facility mainly was intended to benefit the oil industry.

“The oil and gas industry definitely was driving the justification for this project,” Sexauer said. He says the Corps and its state and local partners will consider whether to continue the study after a yearlong review.