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Norwegian company announces Arctic port prospect

By Kirsten Swann 2:43 AM November 12, 2013

Port could bring "tremendous opportunities" to Western Alaska communities, experts say

ANCHORAGE – A major Norwegian shipping firm is “exploring the possibility” of developing a deepwater port in Western Alaska, state officials announced Tuesday.

According to a written statement released by the office of Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state began discussions with Tschudi Shipping Co. several weeks ago in Iceland. Tschudi, one of Norway’s oldest shipping firms, specializes in east-west cargo transit between Northwest Europe, Asia and Russia.

The lieutenant governor’s statement said Tschudi sought to develop a port in between its main harbor in Norway and destinations in Asia and North America.

It’s a move that could transform the economic face of Western Alaska.

Since 2009, warming Arctic temperatures have triggered a steady increase in cargo ship traffic through the Northern Sea Route. The route along Russia’s northern coast is several thousand nautical miles shorter than other transoceanic passages: After two German vessels became the first foreign ships to successfully sail the route in 2009, the Northern Sea Route Administration has issued hundreds of permits to vessels looking to make the trip.

The cargo vessels pass through the Bering Sea on their way out of the northern passage, and Treadwell said Alaska is poised to cash in on the shipping shift.

“We have to be in the game,” he said.

Alaska industry leaders agree.

Jim Hemsath, deputy director of project development for the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, said the right combination of capital and climate change could mold Western Alaskan communities into valuable pieces of the transshipping puzzle. While Dutch Harbor would never be the Singapore of the North, he said it could carve its own niche.

“The long and short of it is, there are a couple of things missing,” Hemsath said.

First, the infrastructure: Hemsath said shallow waters along most of Alaska’s western coastline meant any port activity would require extensive, costly dredging. A port might also require an airport, he said, and the construction bill could quickly overwhelm a small coastal community.

“What’s needed is just a whole lot of money,” Hemsath said.

Even with the money to develop the necessary infrastructure, he said port traffic would be limited by harsh weather and a short, ice-free Arctic shipping season. And before a major port could be built on Alaskan shores, Treadwell said the state would need to collaborate with federal and international authorities to develop the policies and procedures for secure Arctic navigation.

“First and foremost is marine safety. If we can’t do this new ocean right, we shouldn’t be there,” said the lieutenant governor, former chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

Treadwell said marine safety included developing a stronger Coast Guard presence in Alaska’s western waters, as well as careful environmental observation and planning.

But opportunity was there.

Hemsath said development of a deepwater port would create an “interesting year-round economy” in Western Alaska, tapping into a well-traveled shipping route between Asia and Los Angeles. Ships traveling to and from Europe via the Northern Sea Route could refuel in the Aleutians, and an Alaska deepwater port would stand at the intersection of Asian, European and North American cargo traffic.

He said it could unlock “tremendous opportunities” for Alaskan communities, creating jobs and a catalyst for economic growth.

Port of Anchorage Director Richard Wilson said port construction in western parts of the state would be an economic boon for Alaska’s largest village, too. About 80 percent of consumer goods in Alaska travel through Anchorage, and Wilson said the Port of Anchorage would be a valuable through-point for supplies necessary to build a deepwater dock in a more remote part of the state.

“Over time, the continuation of the infrastructure (in the Arctic) depends on the infrastructure here,” he said.

A study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, released in March of this year, examined potential sites for an Arctic deepwater port and pinpointed Nome, Port Clarence and Cape Darby as possible options. Hemsath said Dutch Harbor also had potential as a possible port location.

AIDEA, which finances economic development projects around the state, already has a stake in Alaskan ports. The agency owns the 52-mile haul road and the port complex at the Red Dog Mine; a conduit for 1.2 million tons of lead and zinc ore annually. Treadwell said large quantities of Red Dog ore is shipped to Portugal.

He said Tschudi ships, returning to Europe from voyages to Asia via the Northern Sea Route, could potentially transport the ore for a fraction of the time and cost.

“Felix Tschudi understands the strategic position of Alaska and the practical value of this new ocean that’s opening as ice recedes,” Treadwell said in the statement released by his office Tuesday.

State bond projects approved in 2012 provide $28 million for port preparation projects across Western Alaska: harbor dredging in Bethel, port design in Nome and road and port construction at Cape Blossom.

Hemsath said development of an Arctic port system in Alaska would be a long, costly but ultimately worthwhile venture.

“We’re probably talking the best of 10 years, and that’s consistent with the need,” he said.

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