Royal Dutch Shell has started running ads in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers to build support for its application to drill for oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast in 2011. The company is asking the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement for the go-ahead on a scaled-down version of its plan to drill in the Arctic Ocean this past summer—a plan suspended by regulators after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
If the drilling does go forward, one man watching closely will be Rear Admiral Christopher Colvin, who has commanded the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska since July 2009. Adm. Colvin oversees 44,000 miles of coastline, more than is found in the other 49 states combined. Popular Mechanics spoke with Adm. Colvin about the potential risks of drilling in the Arctic Ocean and how oil companies and the Coast Guard could respond to a hypothetical oil spill. The fact that "there's water where there used to be ice," Adm. Colvin has said, is transforming the economic and strategic role the region plays. "Geopolitically, the Arctic is the most exciting issue of our generation," he told Popular Mechanics, "and we don't know the final outcome."
Opponents of Shell's plan for off-shore drilling have a daunting list of concerns, starting with the months of darkness and severe weather in the Arctic Ocean. Should the United States allow drilling up there?
Where we have a concern is later on, if they get into production drilling and it becomes year-round. We believe we need additional information, research and science for year-round drilling, to know how you could possibly clean up an oil spill in the ice.
If Shell were to drill next summer, it would take its own oil-spill response vessels to the Beaufort Sea. Would the Coast Guard also be standing by on the scene?
Longer-term, can year-round oil production be practiced safely in the Arctic Ocean? What resources would be needed to ensure safety?
In the Gulf of Mexico, there are bacteria that have turned out to be extremely effective at eating oil. Does that kind of biological activity take place in the Arctic Ocean?
The Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea will likely see increases in navigation as summer ice recedes. Have you already seen that begin?
Will the north coast of Russia become a major trade route? And how about the Northwest Passage, above Canada?
Russia wants to establish that route during the summer months, and there will be a tariff for transiting up there. That's where they'll benefit. The Northwest Passage with Canada is a more challenging route. It has a lot of narrow passages and rocks. We've not yet seen that insurance companies—really for either side, but certainly through the Northwest Passage—are willing to insure merchant ships.
We have had cruise ships up there. Two German cruise ships go through every year, and they've been transiting through without much trouble. Last summer, for the first time we're aware of, those two ships were transiting in different directions above Canada through the Northwest Passage, and at the same time a ship carrying industrial parts was transiting above Russia. Usually, that huge ice pack covering the Arctic Ocean blows around from one side to the other and obstructs navigation. It's diminished so much that they were able to transit both sides simultaneously—last year and this year, too.
If you go up to Point Barrow and talk to the hunters and elders up there, they'll tell you that what they're seeing is change like they've never seen in their memory. And what they mean by their memory is their oral history, going back a thousand years. So it's pretty fascinating.
How does all that change the Coast Guard's role?
What does a "persistent presence" in the Arctic Ocean mean, exactly?
You know, we're going to have a cruise ship sink up there one day; it's a pretty severe environment.
If a ship were to get into trouble, how would the Coast Guard mount a rescue? Would pilots have to take off from the Kodiak Coast Guard base in southern Alaska?
If a ship sank, I could send a C-130 up there that would arrive in several hours, but we can't do much with a C-130. We can drop a life raft. You know the big H-60 helicopters, which are the ones that can hoist people to rescue them? They would take two days to get up there. That's not going to be a very timely rescue.
The United States only has three icebreakers, and two of them are out of service at the moment. Is that a concern?
SIDEBAR - Could the USCG Kodiak 1000nm south of the Arctic be in time to perform a successful Arctic Rescue? Doubtful - rescue success is critically measured in response time - you decide. In the alternative - you alone must be better self-prepared and trained - count on yourself until help arrives - it could be hours of a will to survive... cold Arctic waters will take its toll... the USCG must establish an Arctic Jayhawk helicopter crew based at Nome during summer open navigation season - its not IF - its WHEN - its what the Coast Guard does - ALWAYS READY -
A Coast Guard 60 Jayhawk helicopter pulled four shipwrecked fishermen from the 43 degree waters of Alaska’s Bering Sea late on Wednesday afternoon. The men were found in a life raft about 100 miles west of Adak, on the far end of the remote Aluetian Island chain.
Their boat, the 93-foot Katmai, begun taking on water in the stern compartments late Tuesday night, as the ship was on its way back to the port of Dutch Harbor after fishing for cod. At 1:08 a.m. on Wednesday, the Coast Guard picked up a signal from the ship’s Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB. There were 11 people on board. As of Friday afternoon, five bodies had been recovered, one by the Coast Guard and four by Good Samaritan fishing vessels.
To pull the survivors from the icy swells, the four-man 60 crew lowered their “rescue swimmer” into the water in the helo’s rectangular rescue basket. The metal basket is attached by a cable to a hoist on the outside of the helicopter [see video]. The swimmer, who wears a dry suit, mask, snorkel, and fins, swam to the life raft, then pulled each survivor away from the raft to help him into the basket. At the swimmer’s signal, the helo’s flight mechanic operated the hoist to pull each survivor up in the basket, all the while feeding “conning” commands to the pilots, who hover the 65-foot machine approximately 60 feet above the waves.
On Friday, the search continued for the remaining two crew members, with a Coast Guard helicopter, a C-130 airplane, and a 213-foot Coast Guard cutter all completing computerized search patterns. After three days in the frigid seas, however, the odds of finding more survivors seemed minuscule.