My Turn: Shipping natural gas from the North Slope?

With global warming, Northwest Passage is a short-term option

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A transportation route that has fascinated visionaries in the far north for centuries deserves practical study: shipping natural gas directly from the North Slope to market in tankers until a pipeline is operational.

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Cynical jokes are probably inevitable. But this isn't about towing plastic water bags to California or railroad tunnels under the ice to Siberia. Liquefied natural gas tankers and the technology to process, load and ship natural gas worldwide is operational and commonplace. Adding ice shielding to a double-hull tanker should be routine.

This is a measure to get the state's gas to Alaska consumers and markets Outside sooner. Tankers should neither be intended nor perceived as a replacement for an Alaska natural gas pipeline. Natural gas shipment ought to be a short-term fix rather than a long-term one as production plummets through the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the state treasury drains dry.

The natural gas pipeline must happen and should as long as gas consumption outpaces gas supply. But reality demands we recognize that time is not on our side in terms of distribution and market demand. Nevertheless, an ironic opportunity is that climate change and melting of the Arctic ice pack work to Alaska's advantage.

Rarely is an idea entirely new. In September 1969, as Gov. Walter Hickel's press secretary, I was aboard the Esso tanker Manhattan offshore from Barrow. Government, industry and Native leaders were there to witness the loading of a symbolic barrel of North Slope crude oil.

We all were there, in a way, because ever since Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the American land barrier separating the Orient from Western Europe, it has been the goal of explorers to find a shortcut to trade between the East and the West.

A seawater route from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic Archipelago of northern Canada and along the northern coast of Alaska was the dream of navigators since the 16th century.

Could a short-cut - a new shipping route - be found so these billions of dollars in Alaska oil could have a profitable and welcoming place to go?

The Manhattan was the first commercial ship to cross the Northwest Passage after the discovery of oil on the North Slope. We flew out and boarded the ship north of New York City.

For several weeks our energy gurus had been consumed with a question now history. And by the time that symbolic barrel was slung aboard the Manhattan, the answer seemed clear: tankers from the North Slope? Too tough, too expensive, too impractical.

The pipeline option was chosen because it was decided that it wasn't feasible to use the Northwest Passage for oil transport.

But the Manhattan's voyage was far from a waste. At the time, the Manhattan was the largest and most powerful commercial ship ever built in the United States. She was later driven aground in a typhoon and subsequently sent to the coastal breakers in Asia. Rest in peace, Manhattan.

Nuclear-powered submarines have long used and continue to routinely transit the Northwest Passage.

In March 2002, the Anchorage Daily News reported, "The polar ice cap has been shrinking so fast that regular ships may be steaming through the Northwest Passage each summer by 2015, and along northern Russia even sooner, according to a new U.S. Navy report."

In 2001, the Office of Naval Research publicly acknowledged that "submarine data had found a 40 percent decrease in the volume of the Arctic ice."

And I found an editorial comment from a recent Navy research report exciting: "Satellite imagery found that a regular commercial ship could have traveled last summer from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans over Canada."

• Joe Holbert is a former press secretary and director of communications for governor and Interior Secretary Walter Hickel.

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