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Coast Guard braces for Arctic drilling protests

Posted: March 18, 2012 - 12:09am

The U.S. Coast Guard is expecting an aggressive protest effort as Shell Oil drills for oil in the Chukchi Sea this summer, and is planning a very active response of its own.

Protests would likely take place in Seattle or Dutch Harbor, two staging areas for the summer offshore oil exploration effort in the Arctic.

“We’re going to have what we call ‘deployable specialized forces,’ a force of small boats that will be staged in Dutch Harbor during the month of June,” said Capt. Buddy Custard, chief of staff for the Coast Guard in Alaska.

Custard was speaking to the Alaska Legislature’s Northern Waters Task Force at the Capitol Friday.

Custard and Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, about some of challenges coming with what she called the “industrialization of the Arctic.”

Custard said the Coast Guard’s law enforcement presence in Alaska will be just one part of its role this summer, which will also include safety, search and rescue and oil spill response.

It will be the Coast Guard’s most active summer ever in the Arctic, Custard said.

The drilling ships themselves may not go to Dutch Harbor, but much of Shell’s 22-vessel fleet is expected to stage there waiting for the July 1 beginning of Shell’s Arctic exploration window.

Recent activist protests in New Zealand that targeted the drilling vessel lead the Coast Guard to believe that Dutch Harbor may also be a target, Custard said. If it is, the response will ready if those protests get out of line.

“If people push the boundaries, the legal boundaries, we will be there to intervene get them back within the legal boundaries,” he said.

June is a busy time in Dutch Harbor and the Coast Guard wants to make sure other activity there isn’t disrupted if big protests do materialize.

“We’re not here for Shell, were to ensure (a) safe commerce and transportation system,” he said.

June is when Dutch Harbor will be taking in a lot of fish.

“We’ve got to make sure the fishermen can get their product in, and product can get out,” he said. Also, the city of Unalaska needs to get its food, fuel and other shipments through the harbor.

“Our job in the Coast Guard is to make sure that if there is protest activity it does not disrupt commerce, it does not disrupt a port,” he said.

Protests are allowed, Custard said, but violations of the law will not be.

“Americans are allowed free speech, they’re allowed to protest, we honor that,” he said.

Other Coast Guard operations in Alaska this summer include its biggest ever presence above the Arctic Circle. It will stage helicopters in Barrow, midway between offshore drilling operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

Four oil companies may be active offshore in Alaska in the next few years, and the Coast Guard wants to ensure it is ready if it is needed, Custard said.

Shell, ConocoPhillips, Norway’s Statoil and Canada’s Imperial Oil all plan Arctic drilling, he said.

In addition to possible incidents on the water, increased air traffic between Shell’s Barrow staging area and its offshore operations may require a Coast Guard response in the event of an accident, he said.

“If somebody gets into trouble we want to be in a position to help, that’s our job in the Coast Guard,” Custard said.

Rep. Reggie Joule, R-Kotzebue, praised the preparedness.

“The Coast Guard is ready to rock and roll,” he said.

The Coast Guard will be in Barrow from June to September, the longest Arctic deployment the Coast Guard has ever done, he said.

“This is stretching our capabilities and we’re going to learn a lot about what are going to be our future capabilities,” Custard said.

They’ve also learned a lot recently, sometimes the hard way, he said.

A C-130 that was parked on an Arctic runway overnight had its propeller seals freeze. The Coast Guard had to bring in a tent, heat it up and replace the seals, he said.

“It took four days to get that aircraft up and running,” he said.

Custard and Ulmer spoke to a packed audience late Friday afternoon, which Ulmer said showed the public’s interest in development of the Arctic.

“All of us who live in Alaska are extremely grateful the Coast Guard is here,” she said.

Ulmer said the active drilling this summer off Alaska was just one of many activities happening in the region, and particularly with neighbors Russia and Canada.

“What’s really impressive is how much other nations are building up their ports, research and industry,” she said.

The United States needed to do more to maintain its interest, or risks losing out to the others, she said.

“We are the only Arctic nation that does not have an Arctic strategy,” she said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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