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Vol. 12, No. 43 Week of October 28, 2007
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

U.S. must boost Arctic presence

Response needed due to coastal erosion, territorial claims, increased shipping, industrial activity

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

The Arctic seas are opening and the United States needs to ratchet up its presence in the region. That was the message conveyed by Rear Admiral Arthur Brooks, commander of the 17th U.S. Coast Guard District, in an opening speech at the Oil and Ice Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, on Oct. 10.

“The Arctic is upon us now. It is happening now,” Brooks said.

Brooks said that hundreds of vessels are now plying Arctic waters and a cruise ship was currently transiting the Northwest Passage. This summer the Russians moved their team of patrol boats from Murmansk across the top of Russia without an escort of ice-hardened vessels, Brooks said. Brooks also cited the shipping of product from the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska and Shell exploration plans in the Beaufort Sea as further evidence of increased Arctic activity. And then there is the Russian claim to the North Pole.

In addition, Arctic coastal erosion is escalating.

“We have for years seen coastal erosion the likes of which we have not seen before,” Brooks said.

With the dramatic increase in Arctic offshore activity the United States needs to come up to speed on maritime safety, maritime security, maritime environmental protection and enabling maritime mobility for ships, Brooks said.

“We’re going to have to increase scientific support in the area. We’re going to have to deal with issues of sovereignty. … We’re going to have to increase international engagement,” he said.

International boundaries

One challenge from the perspective of the Coast Guard is that international boundaries within the Arctic are unclear. And in terms of negotiating those boundaries under the Law of the Sea Convention, the United States is not even in the ball field, Brooks said (editor’s note: the United States has not yet ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).

“We’re not in the park. We’re not even in the cockpit. We’re not even in the league,” Brooks said. “How’s the United States going to play in the Arctic?”

In addition, the Coast Guard has very little visibility in the Arctic, no Arctic bases and limited communications in the region, Brooks said.

“We have very few American polar icebreakers and there are very few American ice-hardened vessels,” Brooks said.

Brooks also sees the lack of marine support facilities in the U.S. Arctic as a significant issue.

“The problem for all of these commercial vessels, for all of these fishing vessels, for all of these tour ships, for all of these exploration vessels is that there is little or no infrastructure to support them as they move into the Arctic, whether it’s in daily operations or catastrophic response,” he said. “We don’t have the oil spill response capability to meet the challenges of growing offshore Arctic shipping. Every single one of these vessels represents an opportunity, but it also represents a potential consequence. And we have got to figure out how to deal with that.”

Regulation needed

As well as implementing the necessary support infrastructure for Arctic shipping, Brooks sees the need for Arctic-specific regulations.

“The regulatory schemes of the southern world are going to have to move north,” Brooks said.

For example, as polar transits increase there need to be regulations for vessel response plans and vessel security plans. And new oil spill response organizations probably need to be certified to deal with potential Arctic spills.

In the context of oil spill response, people need to understand whether and how techniques such as in-situ burning and oil herders are to be used in the Arctic, Brooks said. Will there be pre-authorization of the use of specific response techniques in connection with oil development or production?

“All of those questions are on the table,” Brooks said.

From an environmental perspective, people need to understand how to manage wildlife resources in the north, especially as some species move north, Brooks said.

Cooperative approach

Brooks emphasized that the Coast Guard needs to work with other federal agencies such as the State Department, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Defense in addressing the Arctic issues.

“The State of Alaska is (also) going to be a huge player and huge partner in how this works in the Arctic,” Brooks said.

Industry, the scientific community and the environmental organizations all need to be involved, he said.

And the involvement of the various Arctic nations is also very important — Brooks expressed concern about international competition around the Arctic.

“We’re setting up here for a national competition over the Arctic between the United States and other countries,” Brooks said. “But I hope it doesn’t have to be that way. Somehow we’ve got to find a way to build a cooperative relationship with Canada, with Russia, with Iceland and Norway and all the other Arctic nations, so that this can be done in a positive, constructive way that serves the planet in a noncompetitive way.”

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Coast Guard plans base at Barrow

In response to the growing need for a presence in U.S. Arctic seas, the U.S. Coast Guard is planning to establish a base at Barrow, at the northwestern end of Alaska’s North Slope.

“We’re very early in the planning stage,” Eric Eggen, USCG public affairs officer for Alaska, told Petroleum News Oct. 25.

The base would potentially involve the staging of some helicopters and patrol boats on a seasonal basis, during the summer, Eggen said. And, although the Coast Guard hopes to open the base in the spring, details of when the base will open and exactly where it will be located have yet to be worked out.

Meantime, on Oct. 25, the Coast Guard flew a C-130 surveillance flight from Barrow to the North Pole and back, to obtain some information about what is happening in the region, including the presence of shipping and the current location of the ice shelf, Eggen said.

—Alan Bailey