Senator Mark Begich holds roundtable on Alaskan deepwater port

Alaska Senator Mark Begich (Dem.) hosted a roundtable yesterday at the University of Alaska Anchorage to consider building a deepwater port in Alaska. According to a press release from Senator Begich’s office, among the dozen participants were Rear Admiral Tom Ostebo, Commander of the Seventeenth Coast Guard District (covering Alaska), Colonel Reinhard Koenig, Commander of the Alaska District of the Army Corps of Engineers, and representatives from NOAA and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

The Alaska Dispatch quotes Begich as saying during the panel, “Alaska is going to be the tip of the spear in resolving this rapidly, which won’t be a fun situation…It takes public infrastructure resources. We have to convince people Alaska is not like California. It’s north, it’s big and we are an Arctic nation.” Begich is right in this regard, because unlike most Canadians, Americans do not generally view their country as an Arctic nation.

The panel is the first in a series designed to study how Alaska can prepare itself to handle increased ship traffic. As the extent of Arctic sea ice decreases over time, particularly in the summer, there will be increased oil exploration, tourism, shipping, and possibly militarization – and hence, more traffic. Consequently, Alaska will need to have more search and rescue ships and infrastructure in place to support such a maritime boom. To get the most out of any new port, the Dispatch reports that many of the panelists supported public-private funding and allowing the port to have multiple uses, such as for both tourist ships and Coast Guard cutters. With the sheer cost of construction and operations in the Arctic, this is really the only feasible way to create a thriving port that meets the needs of many sectors.

At present, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) and the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities are working together to determine the best sites for a deepwater port in Alaska. Through research and mapping, they are trying to find locations along the state’s 927-mile long Arctic coastline that would “that would be a long-term vital asset to national security and to the State’s economy.” [1] The port would be the northernmost one for the US Coast Guard, Navy, and NOAA, and it must be at least 35 feet deep in order to accommodate Coast Guard icebreakers. In their request for capital from the state of Alaska, the ACE identified three main ways in which a deepwater port could contribute to the economy:

  1. The possibility of an Arctic port becoming a direct shipping point for resources developed in the western and northern regions of Alaska.
  2. A major strategic American commercial and military port along the Arctic Coast as vessel traffic increases.
  3. A major infrastructure asset to any future potential endeavors to produce oil and gas from deepwater reserves in the Arctic Ocean.

The first point would be an important development, particularly for the oil and gas industry. Fossil fuels would no longer need to be shipped through the Trans Alaska Pipeline in order to be shipped elsewhere. Instead, they could be shipped directly to the burgeoning markets in China, South Korea, and Japan, whose appetite for oil has increased by 33% since it shut off 53 of its 54 nuclear reactors.

One reason that the western Arctic lags in terms of development behind the Russian Arctic is that there aren’t any deepwater ports. The Northern Sea Route is therefore much better positioned to benefit from increases in shipping volume. The only deepwater port in Alaska is in Dutch Harbor, all the way in the Aleutian Islands in the state’s southwestern region. Additionally, the USCG’s northernmost station is on Kodiak Island, which is 940 air miles away from the northernmost point in Alaska at Point Barrow. The distance of the current ports and stations from the Arctic complicates search and rescue efforts and lengthens the amount of time that research vessels need to spend in transit rather than doing actual research in the Arctic.

An article in Alaska Business Monthly states that the sites which ACE is considering are Nome, Kivalina, Kotzebue, Port Clarence, Cape Darby, Cape Blossom, Red Dog, St. Michael, Prudhoe Bay, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Bering Straits. This fall, the group should be whittled down to four remaining contenders, and the study should be completed by the end of 2014. Let’s just hope that whatever site is ultimately chosen, it does not fall the way of Nanisivik, the planned deepwater naval facility on Baffin Island that the Canadian government recently announced will be a shadow of the original plans once it is actually, if ever, built.

In the meantime, the Economist mentioned in its piece on cooperation in the Arctic, “Cosy amid the thaw,” that Norway and Iceland are considering constructing transshipment ports to take advantage of their positions near the end of the Northern Sea Route. A transshipment port is a place where cargo from large ships is sorted and placed onto smaller vessels for onward shipment to multiple destinations. Kirkenes, Norway and Vopnafjörður, Iceland are two possible locations for this sort of activity. Transshipment probably would not occur in Alaska since it is not located along any major trade routes for the time being. Instead, direct shipment ports need to be developed along its Arctic coast.



[1] Arctic Ports Study Funding Request



Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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