The Port of Nome: Rescoping and Moving Forward
Value and potential as a deep-draft port remains intact
Nome Port Director Joy Baker says that expanding the Port of Nome will have numerous benefits, such as lowering the cost of transshipping goods to Western Alaska as well as Arctic coastal communities; serving US national security needs; and allowing the staging of maritime assets to facilitate search and rescue and oil spill response in the Arctic, protecting the marine environment, food resources, and human life.
Photo courtesy of the Port of Nome
Much like the Port of Anchorage services more than the Municipality of Anchorage, the Port of Nome is vital infrastructure for Western Alaska. It was a particular disappointment for the region when Shell ceased exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea and the subsequent suspension of the Alaska Deep-Draft Arctic Port System Study, a multi-year examination of various options for port development in the Arctic.
Rescoping and Moving Forward
But the Port of Nome’s value and potential as a deep-draft port remains, regardless of oil and gas exploration or production in the Chukchi. Richard Beneville, Mayor of the City of Nome, says that when Shell pulled out the community expected that further development of the port would never happen. “Such is not the case,” Beneville says. “The future has not changed; what is happening has not changed.”
Port Director Joy Baker explains that two new pieces of legislation have revitalized plans for the Port of Nome. The first is the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN) passed in January 2016, which, through modified language, allows development of a port to be justified by benefit to a region, not just a specific community. The second is the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2016, which “Requires DOD to submit to Congress an updated military strategy for the protection of US national security interests in the Arctic region.”
Baker explains, “Both of those bills provide additional justification for picking up the Nome portion of the existing regional study and moving forward to further investigate the development of Nome as an Arctic deep-draft port.”
The Port of Nome has been and remains an optimal choice for an Arctic deep-draft port. “Towards the end of the three-and-a-half-year period, [the US Army Corps of Engineers] had determined that Nome was the most economically feasible to become the first site for an Arctic deep-draft port based on the existing maritime and community infrastructure,” Baker explains. The community of Nome already has roads, a hospital, an airport, and existing port infrastructure and maritime operations and services.
Baker says that one benefit of the suspended study was that it assessed several site options, and now all of those sites are able to use the study results (even if they are not fully complete) for their own planning efforts. “Nome’s path forward is with the Army Corps investigating all the benefits to the region and the national strategic benefits for the military and the country,” she says. During an April interview Baker said that the US Army Corps of Engineers District Office submitted a plan to their DC headquarters for a rescoping of the Nome port project moving forward.
Serving a Region
The Port of Nome operates seasonally, due to a frozen winter sea. Beneville says that, on paper, the port is open from June 1 through October 1. However, with climate change, he says, the port has open water from mid-May through mid-December. Beneville says that in April the ice was already breaking up and was thinner than in previous years.
According to Nome: An Arctic Port for the Nation, published in January 2016 by the City and Port of Nome, the port supports 450 seafood harvesters and processors and is home to Norton Sound Seafood Products and the port offers ingress for groceries, construction supplies, gravel, and other goods that are distributed to more than sixty communities. In total, an average of 53,000 tons of rock, sand, and gravel; 34,000 tons of freight; and 13.1 million gallons of refined products move through the port annually.
Beneville says, “The expansion that is necessary [at the port] is not just for Nome, but it’s a larger picture than that: it’s a picture of opening western Alaska, and that would be a good thing for the state economy. We all know it needs some help, and the diversification of the economy is, to me, one of the ultimate goals.” Beneville explains that traffic at the Port of Nome has increased steadily in recent years; the port saw 160 vessels in 2000 and 750 in 2016. “You can see that over a long and extended period of time the Port of Nome has been serving not just Nome, but the region.”
One ongoing transportation issue in Alaska is the imbalance of imports versus exports. Beneville says that the Port of Nome exports products as well as importing them, for example rock from the Sound Quarry east of Nome where metamorphic rock is mined “that is terrific for sea walls or grinding up for gravel.” He continues, “I really want to bring that point home; Western Alaska has other resources as well.” He says a graphite mine is under development fifty miles north of Nome, and there are other opportunities for exportation as well.
Currently the Port of Nome’s existing causeway is approximately 3,000 feet in length. The outer harbor basin depth is 22.5 feet, allowing the port to service medium draft and smaller vessels. The port is dredged annually by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
The limitations of the Port’s current basin depth certainly affect development. Baker says that ideally the expansion would extend the existing maritime infrastructure out until the basin reached a depth of 36-to-40 feet, with 40 feet being a “high-end goal,” that would accommodate most deep-draft vessels.
Baker says that expanding the port has numerous benefits: it will lower the cost of transshipping goods to Western Alaska as well as Arctic coastal communities; serve US national security needs; and allow staging of maritime assets to facilitate search and rescue and oil spill response in the Arctic, protecting the marine environment, food resources, and human life.
What’s happening now?
The City and Port of Nome are working closely together, “internally contemplating and investigating options for funding the city’s cost-share for construction down the road in four to five years,” Baker says. “We are fortunate that we received $1.6 million in funding from the Alaska Legislature in 2016 to serve as the city’s cost-share for finalizing the study and moving into design for the port,” especially with the state’s current fiscal climate. “We intend to make good use of it.”
Beneville says the Port of Nome project is also fortunate to have the support of local partner Sitnasuak Native Corporation. “They have a vested interest in fuel, and they are in for the long-term on this, and we’re thrilled about that,” he says.
It’s estimated that construction will cost approximately $212 million, though Baker stresses this is an extremely rough estimate, which was calculated without final decisions on the type of docks being built, the exact length of the breakwater, and other factors. Cost-share for completion of the study and design will be 50/50 between the City/Port of Nome and the US Army Corps of Engineers, but she says that percentage will likely be different for the actual construction, relying more heavily on the US Army Corps of Engineers for funding.
Baker says she anticipates it will take two- to two-and-a-half years to complete study, revision, and design of the expansion. If all goes well, and funding is in place, it’s possible that all parties involved may be ready for construction in three years or so.
Beneville emphasizes that the Port of Nome is not just important to the region’s economy, but is a strategic port in terms of national security. “When you look at a map of Alaska, especially on a globe as opposed to a flat map, you see why we are and were, during the Cold War, so incredibly important. A lot of people recognize the importance of development of a port in the far north from a strategic point of view,” he says.
Baker says that one absolute fact is that traffic in the Bering Strait is increasing. “That was the consensus of the Arctic Encounters Symposium in Seattle that I attended [in April]; more than half [of the presentations] demonstrated the increase in vessel traffic… Everything pretty much resolved to the fact that, whether oil and gas is at pause or not, the traffic increases are continuing to rise.” She says traffic is increasing in a variety of industries as interest in the region grows.
Beneville poses the question, “How many ways can you get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in the northern hemisphere by water? There are only two: the Panama Canal and the Bering Strait, and the Bering Strait is beginning to be far more accessible.”
Tasha Anderson is the Associate Editor for Alaska Business.
This article first appeared in the June 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.