Deep-draft Arctic port study shelved for at least a year

Aerial view of Nome’s port. (Photo: Joy Baker/Nome Port Director)
Aerial view of Nome’s port. (Photo: Joy Baker/Nome Port Director)

A highly anticipated study looking into a deep-draft Arctic port for Alaska is being shelved for at least a year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—due to what the Corps calls the changing economic picture of the Arctic.

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The Corps of Engineers announced Monday a 12-month pause in the feasibility study for a deep draft Arctic port. That study put an expansion of Nome’s existing facility as a leading candidate for investment.

Now—in the wake of Royal Dutch Shell’s “disappointing” oil search in the Chukchi this summer—the Army Corps says the shifting economics of the Arctic  is “bringing into question” the basic assumptions of the project.

Those assumptions include a savings of 1,600 miles per round trip for oil and gas support vessels operating in the Chukchi Sea. Now with Shell suspending it’s Arctic operations “for the foreseeable future” the Army Corps says those savings may evaporate—putting the federal backing of the project into question.

The Army Corps’ current plan would dredge Nome’s existing port to a depth of 28 feet—deep enough for larger vessels but still a far cry from the 35-foot depth required for crucial ships like the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. Nome’s Port Commission has pushed for the greater depth but plans beyond 28 feet deep are not firm.

The overall cost for the Nome expansion is expected to be north of $210 million. About $98 million of that would be federally funded—leaving the City of Nome on the hook for as much as $113 million.

The Army Corps says they’ll monitor Arctic activities over the next year to see if there’s worthwhile developments—specifically in oil and gas—that could make the project economically justified.

Matthew Smith is a reporter at KNOM in Nome.

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