When Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell urged the federal government to green-light an exceptional sea voyage in the depths of an unusually cold Alaskan winter, he spoke ominously of what would befall the remote community of Nome, Alaska -- isolated and off the road system -- if it didn't happen.
But as justification for the saga was compressed into sound bites, one important detail was lost: people were not in immediate, if any, jeopardy; enough fuel was on hand to keep homes heated.
Also unmentioned was the need to keep up a construction timeline for shuttering a nearby gold-mining operation -- work that required 150,000 gallons of the dwindling fuel supplies.
Parnell told the U.S. Coast Guard that without the sea-driven load of 1.4 million gallons of fuel, fuel prices would skyrocket and "many families would soon be forced to choose between paying for heating oil or buying food."
Relief for Nome residents must be a top priority, he said.
The city of Nome suggested if supplies got too low, school buses would stop running and police cars wouldn't have enough gas to answer every call for help.
Alaska's congressional delegation shared the same sense of urgency, and pressured government agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, to give the mission an "all clear." From the streets of Nome to the offices of high-level officials in Washington, D.C., cries to avert oncoming doom were sent and heard.
Yet at its core, the extraordinary mission was a business decision, not one of humanitarian relief -- which is not to say one comes without the other. "I think they are intertwined," said Jason Evans, a chief proponent of the "Alaska Ice Mission" and chairman of Sitnasuak Corp., the largest of the 16 Alaska Native village corporations in the Bering Straits region.
"We couldn't just say we ran out of fuel and stop selling it. We have 800 to 1,000 customers that rely on us," Evans said.
Had the fuel tanker never arrived in Nome, the resulting fuel shortage would have undoubtedly caused hardship. But the 3,500 people who live on the shore of Norton Sound were getting by, and early assessments showed enough fuel was on hand to keep homes warm and city services running until March.
Two companies sell fuel to people and businesses in Nome. Only Bonanza Fuel, owned by Sitnasuak, was short on supply. Bonanza's competitor, Crowley Marine, had enough to service its own customers all winter long and had extra on-hand to sell to Bonanza -- an additional 300,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline.
"I think it's serious," Crowley's Bob Cox said from Anchorage earlier this month. "I don't think the Renda is the only option, but that's the one they chose to go with."
Without delivery by sea, Bonanza would have been forced to charter planes to bring in additional fuel, a last resort many view as more costly, more cumbersome, more risky. A DC-6 aircraft that could carry about 4,500 gallons of fuel per trip might have to make 300 trips to bring in the estimated 1.4 million gallons.
Cost of coastal living
Many families throughout Alaska warm their homes with home heating oil, a fuel similar to diesel. Because winters in Alaska can be cold, long and harsh, the state monitors local supplies before winter settles in to ensure communities have what they need for chilly months ahead. Because fuel costs more in Alaska -- and it costs the most in places where people can least afford it -- there is also perennial concern about whether people can buy what they need to survive.
Per-capita income in Nome is a little more than $32,000, according to the U.S. Census, much less than Anchorage and lower than the national average. Four percent of Nome’s residents live in poverty, according to census figures. Beyond the statistics, though, more people than that likely have a hard time making ends meet. Poverty numbers would rise if adjusted for the true cost of living in Alaska and, then again, for living in rural Alaska, said Neal Fried, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor.
Whether the situation in Nome would have become so bad that people would have had to choose food over fuel isn't known. Even with the fuel delivery, some families may still face that struggle. Lives were not immediately in danger but daily routines in the city could certainly have become more challenging if the shortage persisted. Eventually, the city would have to prioritize how it uses fuel, scaling back school bus rides and police patrols.
Regardless of how the fuel got to Nome -- by ice-breaking barge or plane -- having it transported mid-winter would cost more. How increases would translate to prices at the pump wasn't clear, but paying much more than the normal $5.50-$6.00 per gallon price would certainly strain wallets.
"I think people already struggle with high fuel costs," Evans said.
A missed delivery
Preliminary estimates showed there might be an adequate supply of home heating oil in Nome, but diesel for commercial vehicles and construction equipment -- as well as gasoline for residents' vehicles -- would eventually run out.
Complicating the situation: a deep cold spell that descended on the region early this winter and refused to leave. For weeks on end, temperatures in and around Nome have been well below zero. The longer temperatures linger at around minus-20, the more fuel people must use to keep their homes warm, depleting the already-lean supply. And this after an angry November Bering Sea storm slammed into Alaska's western coastline, causing a previously scheduled fuel barge to abandon its trip.
It's not clear why the other barge company, Western Delta, didn't get its load to Nome on time. Of three scheduled deliveries for Bonanza, only the first -- in July -- came through, Evans said. A second delivery planned for early fall was either canceled or delayed, pushed off until even later in the season, to be combined with the third and final load that never made it due to the big November storm.
Unless that missed supply was replenished, a $20.3 million mine closure was at risk -- at least within agreed-upon timeline between mine owner NovaGold Resources, Inc., and the state of Alaska. Upping the stakes is the possibility that Bering Straits Regional Corp. might take over the Rock Creek gold mine, but only if certain work is completed by May. To get that work done, NovaGold needed access to 150,000 gallons of fuel that Sitnasuak had agreed to provide, according to a letter sent to the state by NovaGold in support of the ice-breaking fuel delivery.
According to Evans, while the mine's owners were eager to keep their construction schedule on track, they had also told Sitnasuak they could scale back, if necessary, to free up more fuel for the community.
In his own letter to the state urging that permission be granted to make the fuel shipment through a frozen sea, Evans told Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation "the cost of fuel in rural Alaska is extremely expensive and this delivery method is by far the lowest cost. The community members save millions of dollars of cost and it is by far the most environmentally effective method for winter delivery. Air transportation has countless risks including spills during handling the fuel at least three to four times."
The city of Nome warned that should it run low on fuel, police response times to incidents and performing welfare checks would become "greatly delayed" and that "the depletion of fuel resources will halt a majority of city services."
"In addition to the public safety risk, all fire, ambulance and search and rescue operations will be affected," Nome City Manager Josephine Bahnke wrote to the DEC. "In the absence of diesel fuel, our school buses will no longer be able to transport students to school and heavy equipment will not be available for the city's Public Works Road crew to remove snow and keep fire lanes open."
Only two residents urged DEC to deny the needed permits. A veterinarian in Nome who believed the city had enough fuel to get through most of the winter, Dr. Derrick Levy, asked the agency to "stop the insanity.
"This is a massive undertaking with just too much risk," he said, fearing the inability to adequately clean up a spill should one occur.
"I am totally against this fuel delivery sham," wrote another detractor, Bruce Kittess. "There is no heating fuel shortage. We should not be taking this kind of risk for no reason but to help this private corporation and letting our cars idle half the day!"
Kittess went on: "Please ... double check the validity of this 'shortage.' It is not life or death or remotely close."
Sitnasuak has said that despite the huge effort to commission an Arctic fuel tanker from Russia, prices would end up only "modestly" higher for Nome customers. On the other hand, a flight solution could raise costs "significantly."
On Wednesday, Evans declined to be specific about how much the winter ice barge is costing his company, and would only say that it is "significantly less" than commissioning hundreds of cargo flights -- something that would end up costing an additional $4.50 per gallon, he said.
How that would translate at the pump is unknown, Evans said. And the company has to be mindful that it has a competitor to watch out for, one which, unlike Sitnasuak, isn't in a supply crisis, he said. "Our goal is to maintain stable pricing," he said.
From the start, Evans said his corporation searched for a business solution to its fuel shortage. "We never asked the city of Nome or the state of Alaska to solve our problem," he said. What the corporation did was ask for help facilitating the extraordinary shipment.
Which is how the U.S. Coast Guard and its only in-service icebreaker, the research cutter Healy, became involved.
"The Coast Guard has a long tradition of helping villages," said Lt. Veronica Colbath, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard in Alaska.
Still, the Coast Guard took the job as part of its mission to protect maritime commerce. Generally in Alaska, that work is only year-round in ice-free waterways. Cutting a custom channel through hundreds of miles of sea ice to lead a heavily-loaded fuel tanker to Western Alaska was a first.
"It is not a traditional mission for us in Alaska, but is a traditional mission for the Coast Guard," said public affairs specialist David Mosely, referring to commerce ports in the Great Lakes region and on the nation's East Coast that experience ice and are maintained throughout the winter.
Having a Coast Guard cutter lead the way in, almost like a personal guide, could be viewed as the very kind of government handout Sitnasuak was hoping to avoid. But just how much money the nation spent assigning Healy to lead the way isn't known -- and won't be anytime soon.
"We're not getting into numbers," said Lt. Colbath, who couldn't say how much of the Healy's $28 million annual budget the voyage will cost. "We are not going to give an amount of how much money it is costing for the Healy to participate in this mission because it is a worthwhile event for the Coast Guard."
The mission, Colbath said, was great training for what many believe is the future of the Arctic -- less ice, increased human activity and the need for a bolstered Coast Guard presence. And, she said, it falls in line with the agency's mandate to maintain the safety and security of maritime transportation.
"I don't think we necessarily got any special treatment," Evans said. "We worked through the process that is in place for all Americans."
Fuel's there, now what?
Evans has said while he's pleased the mission was a success, he'd be happy if it's the last time it happens.
But the saga, which gained national and international media attention, has become a poster child for the Coast Guard and Alaska’s congressional delegation, which are interested in adding new ice breakers to the fleet and stationing them in Alaska.
“Like the 1925 Serum Run, this voyage captured the attention of the world. We remember last century's 'great race of mercy' to Nome with the yearly Iditarod. Let's remember this journey with a national commitment to new icebreakers," Alaska Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell said once the ships arrived in Nome.
"We need the Healy, and we need new polar-class icebreakers," Treadwell said. "We need them to maintain the safety and health of Alaska's coastal communities and environment. We need them to foster maritime commerce, just like in the Great Lakes. We need them to counter risks posed by new ship traffic carrying oil products through the Bering Strait, for science, and for security requirements than cannot be met with current capabilities."
Whether a one-time, one-of-its kind, fuel voyage to an isolated Alaska city will help Treadwell and others make the case for this kind of investment remains to be seen. But all indications are they intend to try.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com