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Russian icebreaker to deliver fuel to Nome, highlighting shortage of U.S. icebreakers

Alex DeMarban
Denise Michels photo

A Native corporation's decision Monday to ask a Russian icebreaker to deliver an emergency shipment of fuel added an exclamation point to Alaska demands that the U.S. Coast Guard boost its Arctic presence as climate change opens ice-locked regions to development.

"This is an example where we have to increase our icebreaking capability and have the ability to receive fuel in these ports, because we're going to have a lot more activity up north," said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

The Coast Guard has reported an increase in vessel traffic through the Bering Strait and expects more as tourism, Arctic shipping and petroleum development ramp up in coming years.  

The Renda, a 371-foot double-hulled vessel that recently muscled through five-foot thick ice, was the only ship the Sitnasuak Native corporation could find to break through Nome’s sea ice and deliver 1.5 million gallons of fuel to the town of 3,600, said Jason Evans, Sitnasuak chairman.

The unusual fuel delivery, apparently unprecedented in Western Alaska, arose because sea ice around Nome recently prevented a fuel barge operated by an Alaska company from delivering the fuel.   

When Sitnasuak officials received news of the cancellation seven days ago, they began a global search  for ice-class vessels that could do the trick, said Evans.

The U.S. didn't have many options, he said. The Coast Guard's medium-duty ice-class vessel, Healy, is currently conducting scientific research outside Nome, but it drafts too deep to get within a mile of Nome's shore. An ice tug would have been needed to finish cutting a path to Nome's docks.

But the ice-capable tugs owned by Cook Inlet Tug and Barge weren't available. They are dedicated to Cook Inlet for the winter, said Evans.

He learned that sophisticated ice-breaking technology exists in Norway, which hopes to expand its lucrative offshore oil drilling into icier waters. But ships operating near that country were too far away to help.

Sitnasuak also looked into placing a 50,000-gallon fuel tank on an ice-breaking ferry owned by the Mat-Su Borough. The ship is supposed to break through two feet of ice, but it hasn't yet been tested for that purpose, Evans said.

That left only the privately owned Renda, one of eight marine tankers in Russia that can punch through thick sea ice, said Evans. He couldn't find similar ships in the U.S. There are none in the North Pacific or Arctic seas, though they do exist in the Great Lakes, said Mikhail Sheshtakov, supply and logistics manager for Vitus Marine.

Sitnasuak contracted with Alaska-based Vitus Marine to hire the Renda, which is expected to deliver the fuel later this month. It first must obtain U.S. Coast Guard approval and line up customs requirements.

Shell Oil, which hopes to explore for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas beginning this summer, is building its own icebreakers to support those operations. The company is spending about $350 million to have Edison Chouest Offshore build the Nanuq and Aiviq, 300-foot-long ships known as ice-class anchor handlers, said Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell in Alaska.  

Evans said his company's search highlighted the nation's limits in the high Arctic. "We're definitely behind in terms of how many vessels we have and their abilities, and it's something we might want to look at with proposed offshore oil and gas development and new vessel routes opening in the Arctic," said Evans. "The Russians have known this is coming and have developed Arctic shipping expertise. The U.S. should also."

Some state and federal lawmakers are echoing that call, and want the Coast Guard to embrace a bigger Arctic role.

The nation's only two heavy-duty U.S. icebreakers are sidelined in Seattle, home of the Coast Guard's icebreaker fleet. The heavy-duty ice-class ship Polar Sea and its twin, the Polar Star, are 1970s-era cutters that have been repeatedly repaired to keep going past their original life span. That leaves the Healy as the nation's only functioning icebreaker. But the Healy is medium-duty, meaning it can't slam through the frozen seas as easily as the two Polar ships once did, using their hull like a maul to shatter stretches of ice.  

The Coast Guard reauthorization legislation, introduced last month by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, would require that the Coast Guard expand its Arctic operations and operate at least two heavy-duty icebreakers.

Nome’s fuel-delivery problem "drives home the nation's need for a strengthened presence in the Arctic," said Begich in an email.

“It underscores the reality that despite seasonal reductions in the Arctic ice pack, we still need more icebreaking capacity," he said.

The Coast Guard is assessing its plans for the Arctic, said Kip Wadlow, a Coast Guard spokesman based in Juneau. Among the looming decisions is where to locate an Arctic Coast Guard base. Nome and Barrow are considered the top candidates.  

As for the aging heavy-duty icebreakers, the Coast Guard plans to decommission the Polar Sea and transfer the operational funds and crew to the Polar Star. Tens of millions of dollars have already been committed by Congress to reactivate the Polar Star for another seven to 10 years, said Wadlow.

The big Polar ships have traditionally worked in Antarctica. Now, the Coast Guard is assessing whether the Polar Star should play a bigger role in the Arctic.     

Young, Alaska's longtime congressman, said the Coast Guard needs to focus its icebreaking efforts in Alaska.

"It's crucially important," he said. "The action today is the Arctic, not Antarctica."  

The home port of Coast Guard icebreakers should be in Alaska, not Seattle, Young said. They've long been home-ported in Washington because of their focus on Antarctica, where they supported the U.S. research center at McMurdo Station.

Russia recently announced it will build nine new icebreakers in the next decade, and they're planning for an Arctic that rivals the Suez Canal in its shipping importance, said Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.

Last week, Treadwell spoke before the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation to argue that the Coast Guard needs more polar icebreakers and the U.S. needs to "be more ambitious in its thinking" to prepare for a busier Arctic.

He told the Dispatch that Alaska is engaged in numerous efforts to prepare for an Arctic open to more shipping. The state is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help study potential ports that can handle oceangoing ships, and is involved with other groups and agencies on enhancing mapping, charting, and improving oil-spill response plans.  

Treadwell also lauded the Coast Guard's decision to stay in the Nome area in hopes of assisting the Renda. The agency is mandated to provide icebreaking services to sustain commerce, and this is one of those situations, he said.

The Coast Guard Guard hopes to get a Coast Guard inspector onto the Renda, which is in Russia, as soon as possible, Wadlow said. There's no guarantee the ship will overcome all regulatory hurdles and make it to Alaska, but the Coast Guard plans to stick around for about two weeks --  possibly longer -- if it appears the Renda can come.

"Because it's a foreign-flagged vessel, the Renda has to meet state port regulations to make sure it's in compliance with U.S. and state laws," he said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com