City to invest $1.5 mio in port feasibility study
Over the past decade the shrinking Arctic ice cap has expanded Nome’s dream of harvesting riches from open, navigable waters.
City administrators believe in potential gain to come from Port of Nome expansion and upgrades to make it a deep-water port to attract revenue from increased ship traffic as well as natural resource exploration and recovery.
The City of Nome is banking on an opening of the Arctic that will increase a demand for shipping and port services. The City is willing to follow up years of lobbying with a $1.5 million bet on a positive outcome from a newly launched Port of Nome upgrade study.
Late last month, the Nome Common Council passed a resolution authorizing the City of Nome to enter into a 50-50 cost share agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for completion of the study.
It is expected that the study will take three years or less for a cost of $3 million, or less, according to Joy Baker, Nome’s port director, meaning Nome would pay $1.5 million, or less. The burden would not rest on Nome’s taxpayers, Baker said, as $1.6 million in port planning funds had already been provided by a State of Alaska’s grant in the budget for spending year 2017.
The grant language was broad enough to cover planning and/or design, Baker said.
The budget, scope and schedule will emerge from a planning charrette scheduled for April 24-25 in Nome.
Charrette? That’s a teamwork meeting for design, architecture or urban planning to refine a project plan.
Alaska does not have a deep-water port on its west or northwest coast. The nearest U.S. Coast Guard station is way south at Kodiak.
The federal and state governments launched a previous regional port study in 2011. That study was a collaborative effort between the USACE and the state Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities.
The DOT/USACE report came out in two parts, 2013 and 2015. After consideration of 14 or so sites of marine activity up and down Alaska’s northwestern coast, Nome came out on top in 2015 as a favorable place to keep planning for a deep-water port, very possible as a complement to a system that also includes Port Clarence or another port to the north.
The study cited Nome’s existing infrastructure including an airport suitable for jet airplane traffic and a hospital.
“It just needs to be longer and deeper,” Bruce Sexauer, chief of Alaska District USACE Civil Works Branch, said at the time.
The tentatively selected plan would extend the Nome causeway and dredge the harbor to minus 28-feet MLLW. Existing ice-breakers typically need drafts of minus 35-feet MLLW. For those vessels, the current practice of anchoring offshore and lightering goods and people on smaller vessels would continue.
However, in the fall of 2015, when Royal Dutch Shell suspended oil exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea, it jeopardized the port study’s cost-benefit analysis and the ACOE put the port plan on hold for a year. That pause has stretched to almost three years during which time City administrators have continued to lobby Alaska’s federal delegation and others in Washington D. C.
“When Shell pulled out, it put everything on hold for three years, but it hasn’t changed the future. The pause is no longer a pause. We are moving forward,” Mayor Richard Beneville said. “We are very happy. It’s been a long time coming.”
The former study, placed on hold, has ended, with the USACE-Nome project taking its place. ”The Alaska Regional Port Study was terminated Jan. 3,” Sexauer said. A month later, USACE announced the new study, which will draw on work completed in the former study.
Beneville will make another of many trips to Washington D.C. in a few days.
“This time I won’t be arriving with my hand out, but giving a big ‘Thank you,’” Beneville told the Council Monday evening.
New legislation passed in Congress in 2016 allowed for the study to be authorized regardless of reduced economic benefit. That new federal law allowed feasibility studies concerning rural projects to consider other factors outside of cost-benefit. Nome officials praised Alaska’s federal delegation—Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Lisa Murkowski— for pushing the port study and getting the new law passed.
The new analysis will look at a broader range of benefits than the previous study, including Nome’s role as a regional hub for surrounding communities that rely on fuel and goods, as well as social benefits.
Need a port?
State and federal congressional leadership have highlighted several reasons why Alaska needs an Arctic port: maintaining sovereignty in light of increased Arctic traffic and activity; diversifying Alaska’s economy, serving the offshore oil and gas industry and emergency response—search and rescue and oil spill response.
Lawson Brigham is a retired ice breaker captain and former chair of the Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, also vice chair of Council’s working group on protection of the Arctic marine environment, as well as a professor of geography and Arctic policy at UAF.
Further study of the port question is good, he said with respect to the need for Arctic presence, security, response and economics. However, ship traffic numbers and a short open water season are factors to be carefully considered, he said.
Brigham advised very careful research of shipping routes and the economic foundation for a deep-water port. The bulk of Arctic shipping activity would occur on the Russian side along the Northern Sea Route, he said. There would be light commercial traffic going through the Northwest Passage, because of the irregularity of the ice conditions, he said. Brigham suggested that the effect on economics supporting a port in a three to six month season be carefully examined. He did think that the port could serve ships during the establishment of an oil industry in northern waters.
Beneville noted that the International Marine Organization Polar Code effective Jan. 1 requires vessels to dispose of waste before entering Arctic waters. The Nome Port Commission is currently studying the feasibility of disposal services for certain waste matter.