ANCHORAGE — More than 250 vessels operated last year in the Arctic Ocean and made 480 transits through the Bering Strait, and the increasing traffic poses more of a threat than Arctic offshore drilling, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said Wednesday.
News reports focused on drilling problems experienced by Royal Dutch Shell PLC, including the grounding of one of its two Alaska drill ships, but the unregulated ship traffic is a bigger concern, said Begich, D-Alaska.
“In the challenging Arctic maritime environment, where there are no harbors of refuge and few aids to navigation or search and rescue assets, mariners also have less accurate weather forecasts and charts where there are dozens of miles between accurate depth readings,” Begich said at a hearing of panel he chairs, the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
The Kulluk, which Shell used to drill in the Beaufort Sea, ran aground Dec. 31 in the Gulf of Alaska as it was being towed to a shipyard in Washington state. The vessel left Wednesday morning from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands for Singapore, where it will be repaired for the 2014 drilling season.
Like Shell officials, Begich calls it a shipping accident, not a drilling accident.
Alaskans, Begich said, have not lost confidence in the ability of Shell to drill safely, even after the statement two weeks ago by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that Shell “screwed up” as he released a report on the company’s 2012 Alaska offshore petroleum exploration program.
“When you look at what they (Shell) did in the Arctic region, in the sense of the exploration and the development there, and you look at the Interior report, they did not say that about the Arctic,” Begich said.
The Interior Department report criticized Shell’s work with contractors that moved supplies and the Kulluk, he said.
Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo told Begich the agency responded to 15 other search and rescue incidents the day the Kulluk ran aground. Begich said the Kulluk is a high-profile example of challenges posed to Arctic marine transport.
As summer sea ice continues to melt in record-breaking amounts, if a manufacturer can save 40 percent on shipping costs between Europe and China by using the Bering Strait, it’s a powerful incentive to use the route, Begich said. However, there is no system in place for regulating foreign vessels to know what they’re carrying, how much fuel is on board or how well they’re constructed.
“And unlike oil and gas interests, which have incentives to work closely with Arctic communities, shipping interests are more transient and have fewer resources to mitigate risks and respond to problems,” he said.
Some question the future of Arctic development, Begich said, but he feels “very confident” about the direction oil and gas exploration is going. Arctic development is here whether people like it or not, he said.
“Oil and gas exploration, shipping, tourism — is happening in our Arctic waters now.”
The hearing was in Anchorage, where Begich and most of the people testifying took part. Two people testified from Washington over video teleconference.