A new environmental assessment lays out the extent of the U.S. Coast Guard’s planned deployment this summer in the Arctic Ocean.
The mission is dubbed Arctic Shield 2012, and its scope is impressive, involving multiple cutters, helicopters and other equipment.
The Coast Guard plans to lodge 33 people in the North Slope village of Barrow during the mission, which will begin in July and run through October.
Arctic Shield will coincide with Shell’s much-delayed exploratory drilling campaign in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Coast Guard plans include testing oil spill cleanup equipment, including a skimmer called the Terminator.
The Coast Guard says it aims to safeguard not only the drilling operations, but also the expanding tourism, shipping and research activities in the Arctic, which has become increasingly ice-free in summers.
“The summer season of 2012 will see unprecedented levels of interest and activity in the Arctic region,” the environmental assessment says. “The world’s eight Arctic nations are contemplating agreements to operate effectively in the area. These nations and international partners will continue to push toward further aggressive growth of commercial shipping, exploration, and tourism. Domestic energy companies have reinvigorated their plans to conduct drilling operations in two separate and isolated locations: the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea. The Coast Guard needs to be prepared to respond to potential threats. Arctic Shield 2012 would provide a robust air, surface, and shore-side Coast Guard presence in the Arctic.”
Assets to be deployedThe Coast Guard notes that the Arctic is the smallest of the world’s oceans.
But the waters bordering northern Alaska are vast and remote, and the Coast Guard will attempt to cover the region without a permanent base on the North Slope.
The Coast Guard plans to establish a “forward operating location” at Barrow, which is centrally located on the Slope and had an airport capable of fueling aircraft.
The Coast Guard has leased a hangar at Barrow to house helicopters. The Coast Guard also plans to use a mobile communications van, and will send 17 people to the village to establish and maintain communications.
Two MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters will be stationed at Barrow for search and rescue. These helicopters have the long range — 250 nautical miles — needed to cover the Beaufort and Chukchi, the Coast Guard says.
“The second MH‐60T is required, in accordance with Coast Guard policy, to provide self‐rescue capability in the event that the first helicopter must ditch or crashes,” the environmental assessment says.
Sixteen people will be posted in Barrow to operate and maintain the Jayhawk helicopters.
Short-range MH-65D Dolphin helicopters will be based on Coast Guard vessels.
Two flight deck-equipped Coast Guard cutters and up to two ice-capable buoy tenders with oil skimming capability will take part in Arctic Shield.
“At least one cutter will be present at all times throughout the July to October timeframe,” the environmental assessment says. “Coast Guard vessels would be positioned in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in order to be capable of responding to potential search and rescue or security issues associated with the planned drilling activity by Shell, passenger or other vessels transiting the Arctic, or other mission responsibilities.”
The environmental assessment does not name the vessels to be deployed, but the Coast Guard previously has said one of its new national security cutters, the 418-foot Bertholf, will go to the Arctic.
A 500-meter safety zone will be established around offshore drilling rigs.
“The safety zones will establish an area that is intended to be clear of other vessels and people who may intentionally or unintentionally interfere with permitted exploratory drilling operations,” the Coast Guard says.
Coast Guard ships and planes will observe distance, speed and altitude restrictions to avoid disturbing polar bears, walruses, whales and eiders.
Part of Arctic Shield involves outreach with village mayors and tribal elders. During the mission, the Coast Guard plans to offer medical, dental and veterinary care, water safety education for kids, and commercial fishing vessel safety exams.
Oil spill exerciseA secondary mission for the Coast Guard will be to test people and equipment on Arctic oil spill response.
The Coast Guard plans to test “a modern, high performance, over-the-side, single ship oil recovery system,” to be deployed off a buoy tender. The exercise will run for two to three days offshore Barrow, the environmental assessment says.
One system component is called the Terminator, described as “a high efficiency weir skimmer that will recover all types of oil, from diesel and light grade oil to the most heavy weathered crude and emulsions.” The Terminator is a product of the Danish company Desmi.
A screw pump installed in the skimmer “can pump water and high viscosity oil at the same high capacity and will not emulsify the two during pumping, making separation and decanting possible,” the environmental assessment says. “The skimmer pump is fitted with cutting knives to process debris, including vegetation, seaweed, kelp, garbage, plastics, synthetic and natural fiber line, aluminum cans, bottles, drift wood, dead fish, birds, and small mammals. The pump will pass solids up to 2 inches in diameter.”
Other components include “fast sweep” inflatable boom, and Canflex Sea Slug bladders made of high-strength plastic-coated polyester for holding recovered fluids. The bladders are ocean-towable.
The skimmer is deployed over one side of the vessel, and the storage bladder over the other side.
“Once on the scene of an oil spill, the equipment can be fully deployed and recovering oil in less than one hour,” the environmental assessment says. “The components are lightweight and easy to assemble yet will survive in difficult operating conditions.”
Shell’s drilling plansThe Coast Guard plans to conduct a tabletop exercise with other agencies on rapid response to incidents along the North Slope.
And the Coast Guard will set up an incident command center in Anchorage.
“This center would oversee both the table-top exercise and any real emergent pollution incidents,” the environmental assessment says.
The Coast Guard has conducted limited summer operations in the Arctic over the past five years, including “Arctic domain awareness flights” using C-130 aircraft. These patrols are expected to continue.
Arctic Shield will establish a much greater Coast Guard presence.
“During the past several years, it is undisputed that the climate has warmed, regardless of the causes,” the environmental assessment says.
Aside from oil drilling, the melting Arctic is attracting lots of other activity, such as ecotourism, recreational vessel traffic and adventurers attempting to cross the Bering Strait. Four to seven cruise ships are conducting up to 10 cruises each summer in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean, the Coast Guard says.
Shell hopes to drill exploratory wells on its Sivulliq and Torpedo prospects in the Beaufort Sea, and on its Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea.
The Dutch oil giant has been fighting for years to overcome legal challenges and win permits to start drilling on its leases. Whether bits will actually turn this year remains uncertain, but Shell is preparing to move its drilling ships and support vessels into the Arctic.
The Coast Guard’s only functioning icebreaker, the Healy, is scheduled to also be in the Arctic Ocean during August, September and October in support of various government and university scientific projects.
Find the environmental assessment at www.uscg.mil/D17.