In a World Politics Review article published last Friday, I wrote that despite record low ice melt last year, the Arctic’s harsh environment is not giving way to commercial growth as quickly as some may expect. For example, after a hopeful summer, Shell suspended its oil and gas exploratory drilling in part because its equipment kept getting damaged by dangerous ice floes and strong ocean currents. Operations are expected to resume this summer.
As a result, U.S. policymakers charged with safeguarding America’s interests in the Arctic should continually recalibrate their expectations for commercial and other activity in the region in order to enhance their planning efforts. After all, the kinds of resources that the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal agencies will need to bring to bear in the Arctic are linked to the pace and development of activity in the region. And while the Arctic may one day be buzzing with eco-tourists, oil and gas drillers and deep sea fishers, it may fall short of our expectations and we should plan accordingly.
Read the full piece on World Politics Review here.
The Shell drilling rig that ran aground off the Alaskan coast on New Year’s Eve was secured on Monday, officials said. The drilling rig Kulluk, pictured here on January 3, ran aground near an uninhabited island after a winter storm caused it to break free from the tug boat cables used to tow the vessel to Seattle. The grounding is the most recent in a string of setbacks for Shell’s Arctic drilling efforts and has given more evidence to critics charging that Shell and other international drilling companies are not yet Arctic ready.
The prospect of slower commercial activity in the Arctic should give pause to U.S. policymakers making plans for the Arctic. In particular, the resources necessary to protect U.S interests in the region – such as Coast Guard search and rescue and spill response assets – will depend in part on the pace of commercial activity in the region. These recent Arctic incidents should encourage policymakers to recalibrate their assumptions about activity in the region.
Photo: On January 3, the Kulluk remained grounded 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Russia’s Zarubezhneft oil company has moved to shallower waters to continue drilling exploratory oil wells off Cuba’s coast, according to a report in the Washington Post on Saturday. The company’s new project comes after several failed attempts earlier this year to drill commercially-viable ultra-deep water oil wells off the Cuban coast. According to some estimates, there could be potentially 5 billion to 9 billion barrels of crude oil in deepwater off Cuba’s coast, a tenth of which may be commercially viable according to industry standards.
With fresh memories of the Gulf Coast Deepwater Horizon accident, U.S. government officials – including the U.S. Coast Guard – have been increasingly worried about offshore oil drilling in non-U.S. waters that could impact the U.S. coast if an accident occurs. Increased activity in Cuban waters is a particular concern for U.S. officials. A March 2012 The Washington Post report noted that Cuba’s capacity to respond to an offshore oil spill is extremely limited, with “only 5 percent of the resources needed to contain a spill approaching the size of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.” These concerns have also raised the question of how the United States could respond to an oil spill in Cuban waters given the state of U.S.-Cuba relations, including export restrictions that prohibit U.S. companies from providing equipment or otherwise performing response functions that could be construed as aiding the Cuban government.
In particular, the half-century old Cuban embargo obliges any company operating in Cuba to use only equipment that contains less than 10 percent U.S.-made parts in order to avoid sanctions. This means that companies operating in Cuba’s deepwater may not necessarily be using the most sophisticated or the safest tools and techniques shared by U.S. drilling companies. This might not be a concern in shallow water (several hundreds of feet deep), but in ultra deep water (depths beyond 1,500 meters), U.S. companies have a comparative advantage over many other international drilling companies. Moreover, deepwater drilling remains risky, even for U.S. companies. And while Zarubezhneft plans to drill in shallower water for its next project, it is still drilling in deep water: 6,500 meters.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Henry Blake recently conducted a 3,500 nautical mile trip from Puget Sound to Juneau, Alaska on a 50-50 blend of conventional petroleum and algae-based alternative fuel.
According to Defense News, the demonstration was driven in part by the Coast Guard’s need to understand how well its platforms operate on alternative fuels, given that officials anticipate that the military may be increasingly using blends of synthetic fuels in the future. “The Blake evaluation could be especially important, since the vessel’s mission encompasses so many variables. For example, the cutter moves at full throttle through open water, but also maneuvers at slow speeds for buoy tending duties,” Defense News reported.
Coast Guard officials will compare their performance data with the Navy’s demonstration data to look for any differences. “All the other tests that have been done by the Navy have seen no discernible difference, and we fully expect this to be the same thing,” Sam Alvord, energy fuel section chief for the Coast Guard’s office of energy management, told Defense News. “There were no leaks, no uneven wear, nothing that would raise any eyebrows. It was very short and sweet.”
Photo: The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Henry Blake travels through the Puget Sound on August 22, 2011.
In July, the U.S. Coast Guard launched “Arctic Shield,” an operation intended in part to assess the service’s Arctic capabilities, including those related to search and rescue and disaster response and environmental protection.
The U.S. Coast Guard expects that demand for search and rescue response will increase as the Arctic becomes increasingly crowded, from energy companies exploring for offshore petroleum, commercial shippers plying the opening sea lanes to eco-tourists exploring the Arctic landscape.
In this photo, a U.S. Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew from Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, prepares to launch a search and rescue mission from Coast Guard Forward Operation Location Barrow, Alaska on July 25, 2012.
Photo: Courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class Elizabeth H. Bordelon and the U.S. Coast Guard.
On Sunday, The New York Times published a report that outlines some of the key issues that the U.S. Coast Guard must grapple with as it assumes greater responsibility in the Arctic, including how it will conduct search and rescue missions, as well as oil spill response.
According to The New York Times report, the Coast Guard began a pilot project in July known as Arctic Shield, “combining search and rescue responsibilities with disaster response and maritime safety enforcement,” a likely first step towards increasing its presence in the region.
Perhaps one of the most pressing challenges that the Coast Guard must face is the lack of physical infrastructure in the Arctic Circle, particularly its own shore-based infrastructure from which it can conduct a range of missions. Most of the Coast Guard’s personnel and equipment in the region is based in Kodiak, Alaska, almost 1,000 miles south of Barrow, Alaska – the northern most U.S. town – from which the Coast Guard will presumably be operating from.
As we in the United States are struggling with massive heat waves, others are moving to cooler temperatures – including the Chinese. Last week, the Chinese icebreaker, Xue Long, (“Snow Dragon”) departed on a three month Arctic expedition (its fifth Arctic expedition). Along the way, the Xue Long will conduct scientific experiments and study the effects of changes in the Arctic ecosystem on climate. The fifth voyage of the Snow Dragon will be its longest and farthest to date and its first attempt through the Northern Sea shipping route. According to the Chinese National Antarctic Research Expedition (CHINARE), scientists will be studying sea ice in and around the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, the Bering Strait, Canada Basin, and the Mendeleev Ridge. After traversing through the Arctic Ocean, Xue Long will sail to Iceland for a research visit which underscores the growing cooperation between Iceland and China. (During Premier Wen Jiabao’s April visit to Iceland, the two countries signed a geothermal energy accord.)
On Wednesday, several of us from CNAS had an opportunity to visit the Coast Guard’s 154ft Bernard C. Webber Fast Response Cutter (FRC), the first of the newest Sentinel class FRCs that are slated to replace the aging 110ft Island Class cutters. This new variant will serve to fill an endurance gap in the Coast Guard’s current patrol boat fleet by being able to perform near the coast or to deploy up to five days out at sea to conduct its missions. The missions set is diverse and includes marine environmental protection, fishery patrols, search and rescue, as well as law enforcement functions, such drug, arms and illegal migrant interdiction.
One of the key differences between the 110ft and 154ft Fast Response Cutters is the time and effort to deploy the small boats from the cutters, which is really a core function of the FRC – that is, deploying a boarding crew to perform the missions listed above. Whereas a 110ft cutter has to deploy the small boat from the deck of the cutter using a crane and many members of the crew, the 154ft cutter employs a stern-launching system where the small boat sits in a well at the stern of the ship and can be deployed by a single crew member if necessary. What is more, where the 110s took up to 20 minutes to deploy the small boats, the 154s are capable of doing it in less than a minute. This will save lives when the cutter is deployed in a search and rescue mission at sea or after a severe storm near the coast.
Special thanks to our Coast Guard Fellow Commander Shannon Gilreath for arranging this awesome visit.
Photo: The Coast Guard Cutter Bernard C. Webber off the coast of Miami in February 2012. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The U.S. Navy does not have the assets it needs to conduct long-term Arctic maritime operations and will have to increasingly rely on the U.S. Coast Guard or international partners in order to accomplish its missions, according to a Sunday report in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
According to the report, the U.S. Navy asked the U.S. Naval War College to conduct a war game in September 2011 to explore what the U.S. Navy would need to execute long-term missions in the High North. “We looked at search and rescue, oil spill response, maritime domain and maritime safety and security issues," Walter Berbrick, assistant research professor in the War Gaming Department at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “They were all fictional scenarios.”
The war game’s conclusions, according to the report, may suggest looming challenges for America’s ability to project power and protect its interests in the Arctic. According to the report:
[T]he Navy is not adequately prepared to conduct long-term maritime Arctic operations; Arctic weather conditions increase the risk of failure; and most critically, to operate in the Arctic, the Navy will need to lean on the U.S. Coast Guard, countries like Russia or Canada, or tribal and industrial partners.
To sustain operations in the Arctic, the Navy needs ice-capable equipment, accurate and timely environmental data, personnel trained to operate in extreme weather, and better communications systems. Much of the environmental data will come from other Arctic nations.
The report particularly notes the U.S. Navy’s lack of ice-capable ships. “We have limited capability to sustain long-term operations in the Arctic due to inadequate icebreaking capability," Berbrick told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "The Navy finds itself entering a new realm as it relates to having to rely on other nations." Interestingly, the report also notes that the Navy (in large part because of its lack of ice-capable ships) will increasingly work with the U.S. Coast Guard, which has had a greater presence in the region as of late. Yet the U.S. Coast Guard’s missions in the Arctic are also undermined by its inadequate icebreaking capability – although there is renewed interest in expanding the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet, which now consists of one active and two inactive vessels.
Two years ago today the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling rig experienced a catastrophic explosion off the Louisiana coast that destroyed the rig, killed 11 people and poured an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, demanding an unprecedented response from the U.S. Coast Guard and other local, state and federal agencies. The long-term environmental impacts and effects on coastal residents and the rest of the region are still not well understood.
Photo: Fire boats respond to the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 21, 2010. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.