Shell Oil fleet headed to Unalaska
By LORETTO JONES
Shell Oil is slated to bring seven support vessels and 400 workers to Dutch Harbor in June to begin oil exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, said Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt. The flotilla is anticipated to remain in Dutch Harbor through October 2010.
Minerals Management Service (MMS), a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior, conditionally approved in February a plan submitted by Shell Oil to drill up to three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea. Shell could drill up to 12 wells over the course of the six-year project, if ice conditions allow. Areas targeted for exploration include regions near Camden Bay and areas east of Prudhoe Bay.
This will be the first Alaska offshore oil exploration to be conducted since exploration was halted in 1990, but it will be the second time this decade that Unalaska will host the Shell Oil fleet. In July 2007, the fleet remained anchored in the harbor, never sailing north for the drilling season due to challenges in federal court by groups stating environmental analyses were incomplete.
Dutch Harbor’s central location in the North Pacific is close to the Great Circle Route between the West Coast and Pacific Rim nations and is the hub of transshipment cargo between Pacific Rim trading partners. Dutch Harbor is also port to many commercial vessels because of its proximity to the most productive fishing grounds in the world.
If Arctic ice continues to melt, it is possible that the Northwest Passage will open to maritime shipping. As sea ice continues to retreat, longer navigational seasons will occur, and the search for oil and gas may increase.
The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum established to promote cooperation and interaction among Arctic states, published the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report. It anticipates increased future offshore oil and gas production, which means significant international marine transportation to support oil and gas exploration as well as the growth of Arctic tourism.
“It’s been 500 years that we’ve been talking about these oceans as areas to operate in regularly, and what this assessment shows is that it’s here now,” said Mead Treadwell, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, one of the financial and organizational supporters of the Arctic Maritime Shipping Association (AMSA).
Treadwell went on to say in the February 2010 issue of WorkBoat that “The U.S. Geological survey has estimated that 13 percent of the undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the undiscovered conventional natural gas is to be found in the confines of the Arctic region.”
In 2010, the Coast Guard Authorization Act was introduced to ensure that safe and secure maritime shipping in the Arctic would include aids to navigation, vessel escorts, and spill response capability, and maritime search and rescue in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Congress recently asked for an assessment of the U.S. mission capability in the Arctic regions through 2020.
The nations that border the Arctic Ocean – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States – must work together to prepare for environmental impacts and to build an Arctic marine infrastructure. Shell Oil, the Coast Guard, the City of Unalaska and global maritime industries must work in cooperation with Arctic nations.
In 2009, a group of Shell executives visited Unalaska to determine if using Dutch Harbor as a staging area would be a feasible for the city. They asked if Dutch Harbor would be able to accommodate their employees and ships should they utilize the deep water port. They presented a brief slide show and fielded questions from local residents and city council members. While many commented on the need for local jobs, no one wanted another spill.
“Shell Oil staging here in Unalaska is good for our economy, but if it’s for exploration or drilling anywhere near Bristol Bay, I say no because the Bering Sea is the fishing center for the world,” said Char Govig, a long-time resident of Unalaska.
Capt. Peter S. Garay, a senior pilot with the Alaska Marine Pilots, said that both the Arctic Ocean and Alaska are facing significant changes that represent new risks to the waters surrounding Alaska’s coastline, including spill response capability, jurisdictional conflicts and new standards for vessel and equipment design and construction.
“Safe shipping procedures and practices in the Arctic are essential,” Garay said. “We are concerned about the risk to waters surrounding Alaska’s coastline. We believe that a state-licensed pilot should be aboard the tanker during all of Shell’s lightering operations and spill response activities in the Beaufort Sea. Our mandate is to protect life, property, and the marine environment.”
Like so many residents in Unalaska, the Alaska Marine Pilots organization sees the need for exploration yet cannot forget the environmental disasters caused by the Exxon Valdez, Cougar Ace, and the Selendang Ayu. They want responsible stewardship if there is going to be exploration and drilling.
The not-for-profit Alaska Chadux Corp. provides petroleum spill containment, control, and clean-up. In December, it beefed up its Dutch Harbor presence by bringing a full-time staff member, Jay Brost, to work in its office in the former Latitude 54 building.
Bob Heavilin, general manager for Alaska Chadux, said the goal is to provide quicker response and better coordination with its members: Delta Western, OSI, North Pacific Fuel, the Coast Guard, American Seafoods, and the city of Unalaska.
“Our vision is to work with the city and state, and consolidate entities.” Heavilin went on to say, “If there is an ‘event,’ we want to be there quickly. The Unalaska branch office hopes to provide oil spill training, and plans on expanding its maintenance program by bringing a new landing craft and more trucks to Dutch Harbor. While we have no formal contact with Shell, we stay in touch.”
While many want to see Arctic access to oil and gas resources, some doubt the whole premise of climate change.
“Chances of the ice retreating is 50-50,” said Mark Stahl, a four-year resident of Unalaska who works with the Dutch Harbor salvage company Magone Marine, Inc.
“The science isn’t there,” he said. “This whole global warming is more political than it is real. We will see more ice like it was back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. What we are seeing now is a normal cycle of weather. The whole idea of the polar cap melting is not substantiated by good science.”
Whether the ice is melting or not, with locals out of work and fishing boats facing shortened seasons and smaller quotas, the hope is Shell Oil will stimulate the local economy. Dutch Harbor may be headed for another boom, but instead of fishing, it will be oil.
Capt. Loretto Jones is a commercial diver, works with the University of Alaska Fairbanks as an instructor, and with her husband aboard their charter vessel, providing research charters for NOAA, TerraSond, and John Oswald & Associates, LCC.