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Arctic Deep Water Port


Long-term asset envisioned

There has been discussion about the viability of an Arctic deep water port in the United States, but those talks took a serious turn when Senator Lisa Murkowski joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Nuuk, Greenland for a meeting of the Arctic Council last May. The Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses the issues facing Arctic countries, is made up of foreign affairs ministers and leaders from the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark.


Shrinking sea ice in the Arctic has contributed to increased marine traffic, raising concerns over whether northern nations are prepared to respond to Arctic emergencies such as search and rescue and environmental spill response. During the Arctic Council’s bi-annual ministers’ meeting, an international treaty was signed by all Arctic Council nations that would require coordination of emergency response efforts in the event of a plane crash, cruise ship sinking or other major disaster. This legally binding treaty puts significant responsibility on each country to fulfill its obligations under the agreement.

Days after the Arctic Council treaty was signed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers partnered with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to host the Arctic Deep-Draft Ports Planning Charrette in Anchorage. The purpose of this planning session was to bring together representatives from state and federal agencies and organizations to begin the process of joint planning for potential U.S. ports in the Arctic regions of Alaska. Involved agencies included the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Coastal and Ocean Management, Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, Denali Commission, Northern Waters Task Force, NORAD, U.S. Arctic Research Commission, Arctic Council, Institute of the North, Marine Exchange of Alaska, Committee of the Arctic Maritime Transportation System, and the U.S. Navy.


Alaskan leaders have long recognized the need for Arctic port development on a national and state level. Senator Mark Begich introduced seven pieces of legislation in 2009 known as the Inuvikput Package that urged lawmakers to take the necessary steps in maintaining sovereignty in light of increased Arctic traffic and activity while expanding and diversifying Alaska’s economy.

Also in 2009, Murkowski introduced legislation that would require the U.S. to undertake a detailed study of the feasibility of establishing a deep water sea port in the Arctic. While the Arctic Deep Water Sea Port Act of 2009 did not become law, Murkowski has continued to lead the national conversation about the strategic importance of the Arctic to the U.S. In a press release dated May 16, 2011, Murkowski states, “It is an exciting and unprecedented time in the Arctic. We know that the environmental changes occurring in the region are happening at a dramatic rate, but the political response has been much slower.”

In 2010, Representative Don Young followed up Murkowski’s proposed legislation by introducing the bill H.R. 4576: Arctic Deep Water Sea Port Act of 2010. It also failed to gain traction in Congress.

Since the U.S. purchased Alaska in 1887, it has sought to protect its interests in the Arctic. President George W. Bush signed the National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD)-66 on Arctic Region Policy in January 2009, stating goals as: “Meet national security and homeland security needs relevant to the Arctic region; Protect the Arctic environment and conserve its biological resources; Ensure that natural resource management and economic development in the region are environmentally sustainable; Strengthen institutions for cooperation among the eight Arctic nations; Involve the Arctic’s indigenous communities in decisions that affect them; and, Enhance scientific monitoring and research into local, regional and global environmental issues.”


The only state in the Arctic region, Alaska bears a lot of the responsibility for meeting this mandate. At the USACE/DOT &PF intense planning session last May, Young acknowledged there has been significant interest in the Arctic by the U.S. as well as other Arctic nations. “The U.S. is an Arctic nation because of Alaska, and Alaska will provide the gateway to our nation’s future,” Young said. “We have the opportunity now to address the prospects of industry years down the road and how we can use changing Arctic conditions to our advantage. Now is the time to be investing in our infrastructure and laying the groundwork. “

Beyond national security and resource development on the national scale, Alaska stands to benefit greatly from the construction of one or more deep water ports along Alaska’s coastline. This major infrastructure asset would provide a direct shipping point for resources developed in western and northern regions and could support future oil and gas development in the Arctic. Mark Luiken, commissioner of DOT&PF stated in a press release, “A deep draft port would be a long-term national asset. It is vital to project U.S. presence, to open up opportunities for economic growth, aid in mineral research and development, and to support continued scientific studies.”
The State of Alaska has defined the purpose for the future port as: “To promote economic development, employment, job training and education in the state of Alaska, including areas of rural Alaska was historically high rates of unemployment, through the development and construction of an Arctic port that will attract new industry, expand international trade opportunities, and broaden and diversify the economic base in Alaska in a safe, reasonable and efficient manner.”

The planning charrette underscored that while generating national interest is vital to securing federal funding for any deep water port in the Arctic, economic development of resources and private industry will most likely be the driving force behind progress. Recently, Sitnasuak Native Corp. of Nome signed a contract with Vitus Marine LLC to deliver 1.5 million gallons of petroleum products to Nome via marine tanker to replace the fuel that was not able to be delivered to the town due to early winter storms. This contract marks the first time fuel has been scheduled for delivery to a western Alaska community during the winter months, according to Sitnasuak officials. Although the double-hulled ice-classed Russian tanker is certified to travel through four feet of ice, the use of the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy may be needed to ensure the delivery makes it to Nome, the company stated.

The Nome fuel crisis demonstrated the need for additional infrastructure in Arctic regions of Alaska. Clearly a deep water port could not have ensured fuel delivery for Nome, but increased infrastructure in the area would entice larger vessels to bring goods and services to the northwestern communities of Alaska. Infrastructure identified in the intense planning session last May that is needed to make the Arctic deep water port economically viable include an airport, helicopter facility, marine support services, billeting, warehousing, stores, potable water, sewage facilities, fuel and public services such as hospitals and schools.


The U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are the two federal agencies that would benefit most from a deep water port in the Arctic. Currently, the most northern base for the USCG is located on Kodiak Island, 940 air miles across land from Point Barrow, according the charrette report, and the ability to respond quickly to emergencies in the Arctic is greatly reduced because of the distance vessels must travel from other ports.

NOAA estimates it spends one third of its time transiting to ports with services, fuel, food and supplies. The NOAA survey ship Fairweather has a 22-day endurance while at sea, however it takes the vessel four days to travel from Dutch Harbor to Barrow. A deep water port with the proper amenities could extend the time vessels could spend on productive tasks, according to NOAA. The USCG and NOAA have both stated that while an Arctic port is not vital to their operations at this time, they would definitely use the port if it where available.


Potential Arctic port sites were discussed at the May 2011 planning session held in Anchorage. While resource development and private industry will ultimately drive the location and development of an Arctic port, the criteria of a site location for purposes of discussion included national security, environmental, economic development, infrastructure, life safety, sustainability, land ownership, spill response and socioeconomics. Possible port sites under discussion included Nome, Kivalina, Kotzebue, Port Clarence, Cape Darby, Cape Blossom, Red Dog, St. Michael, Prudhoe Bay, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Bering Straits. Planners said it is doubtful one port will fit every need and multiple port solutions may need to be evaluated.

How a deep water Arctic port project will be funded is unclear. The federal government appreciates the roll it must play in protecting the country’s interest in the Arctic in regard to national security and sovereignty; however, the fragile state of the federal economy puts into question whether that will be enough to push the project forward. Nearly $1 million in state funding from the 2012 fiscal budget has been identified by Governor Sean Parnell to begin the process of underwriting the studies necessary to identify the feasibility for Arctic port development, but even that is about a third of the cost necessary to complete the three-year study that will determine the best location for the nation’s only deep water Arctic port.

Findings of the planning charrette indicated Arctic deep water port development is a 20-plus year process and stressed that some issues need to be addressed now such as how the U.S. will fulfill its obligation to the Arctic Council Search and Rescue treaty. Spill response was also listed as a concern as traffic continues to increase in the region; however, short-term solutions such as mooring buoys and lightering may be necessary until the full port project can be built.

This article orginally appeared in the January 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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