Transportation Research Board’s Fall Meeting – focus session: responding to emergencies in the Arctic

Coast Guard Perspective

Vice Admiral Charles D. Michel, Vice Commandant for the US Coast Guard (USCG) spoke on behalf of the Coast Guard on the topic of responding to emergencies in the Arctic.


The U.S. Coast Guard’s history in Alaska goes back to the Revenue cutter Bear, an ice-strengthened ship that patrolled the Alaska territory’s waters from 1885 to 1926, providing the federal government with a seasonal and mobile presence.


Vice Adm. Charles D. Michel, USCG, said that the seasonal and mobile presence, the ability to work with partners, and the ability to provide governance in the Arctic region remain the necessary factors that allow the Coast Guard to operate in far northern waters. With the decreased ice cover due to climate change, more human activity is likely to occur throughout the Arctic.


After personal conversations with Alaska residents, he knows that conditions have definitely changed in Alaska. Animal migration patterns are different. The coastal erosion problem is larger because of diminished sea ice.


The Coast Guard has four strategies in place, one of which was led by Admiral Robert Papp. The strategies complement one another and involve cyber technology, western hemisphere cooperation, and an energy action plan. The Coast Guard is focusing on three threads involving improved awareness, modernized governance, and broadened partnerships. The cutter Bear’s mission included these subjects, but now specific strategies are outlined for them.


Vice Adm. Michel listed the USCG’s initiatives to fulfill the strategy:

  1. Enhancing Arctic operations and exercises
  2. Improving maritime domain awareness
  3. Ensuring Arctic surface and air capabilities with associated infrastructure
  4. Improving Arctic communications abilities
  5. Strengthening marine environmental response
  6. Promoting management
  7. Supporting the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council and the council itself
  8. Continuing IMO Polar code development
  9. Establishing an Arctic Coast Guard Forum
  10. Establishing a Center for Arctic Study & Policy at the Coast Guard Academy
  11. Creating an Arctic Policy Board
  12. Creating an Arctic Fusion Center
  13. Creating an Arctic Maritime Assistance Coordination Center


Vice Adm. Michel reviewed the 2011 Arctic Shield Operation, which was a seasonal, mostly mobile Coast Guard operation that focused on the North Slope area. No permanent USCG infrastructure has yet been established in the region. The Coast Guard is still trying to decide what infrastructure investment makes the most sense because new facilities will be extremely expensive and, once the decision is made, the infrastructure can’t be changed. With the Bear (and current USCG cutters), the ships can move to where the human activity is occurring.


Other subjects that Vice Adm. Michel covered:

  • Arctic Zephyr—a multilateral scenario-based training exercise—was conducted in Anchorage, Alaska last month in coordination with the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Arctic Domain Awareness Center.
  • The Coast Guard is planning a live search and rescue exercise in 2016 which will involve a cruise ship. The exercise will be timely because the cruise ship Crystal Serenity will travel through the Northwest Passage next summer.
  • The USCGC Healy—a vessel dedicated mainly to science—made its first trip to the Arctic this past summer. This is significant because the vessel is only a medium icebreaker capable of operating in three-foot thick ice.
  • A tabletop exercise is being planned to train for the implementation
  • of an Arctic nation oil pollution agreement.
  • USCG works with Russia on a day to day basis in the Arctic on search and rescue, law enforcement, and pollution response.


In conclusion, Vice Adm. Michel said mobile and seasonal multinational assets are necessary for global ensured access. Virtually everything in the Arctic is done through partnerships, as no country can take of all of its business on its own. The distances are too far and not enough per county resources are available.

As a result, the Coast Guard’s goal is for partnerships and governance to work in concert in the Arctic.


Alaska Perspective

Commissioner Mark Myers with the Natural Resources Commissioner spoke about responding to emergencies in the Arctic from an Alaska perspective.

Myers said the development of natural resource deposits may lead to increased shipping in Arctic waters. The resources include onshore and offshore gas, and hard rock minerals.

He said Red Dog Mine operations had required 24 vessel trips in 2014. The Arctic vessels would operate primarily in coastal areas. The resources would be developed in the area and then shipped elsewhere.


According to U.S. Geological Survey’s Arctic appraisal, 27 percent of the nation’s undiscovered oil is estimated to be in Alaska.


Depending on their exact location, mineral resources can be shipped in two ways, either by vessel or by train (to a Southcentral Alaska port).


About oil spill risk, Myers said agencies have built a lot of redundancies into their requirements. The key response is prevention and, if a spill should happen, rapid mitigation. Because oil interacts with the environment in complex ways, the response effort could continue for multiple years, creating a need for local training for local workers.

Additionally, infrastructure should be designed for multiple purposes and have cooperative agreements in place for multiple entities to use the facilities and to operate them as integrated, shared responsibilities.


Oil spill response research is needed that includes work on detection, monitoring, and modeling as well as examining the role of dispersants and biodegradation.

Emerging technologies such as high frequency radar (HFR), remote power module (RPM), AUV & UAV, and satellite remote sensing show promise. Satellite remote sensing is advancing rapidly. These tools could be used together for an enhanced strategy.

Turning to the subject of emergency response, from the practitioner’s viewpoint, Myers said that the Arctic does not have a lot of infrastructure to serve aviation, though when people or equipment need to move quickly aviation is particularly important.


Oil & Gas Producer Perspective

Rear Admiral Mark Guadagnini, US Navy (Ret.) now working for Shell spoke about emergency response from a practitioner’


perspective. He stated that he was hired to be in charge of Shell’s Alaska logistics operation, which just completed its first very successful operation in 25 years. Despite its success drilling a well to target depth in a single season in the Arctic, there was no oil, and Shell has been forced into a different direction.

Admiral Guadagnini then spoke about the hurdles that logistics had to overcome while operating in the Alaskan Arctic over the summer, including:

  • Kayak activists in Seattle;
  • A vessel hitting an uncharted shole in Dutch Harbor;
  • The biggest storm of the last quarter century in the Chukchi Sea;
  • Flooding in Barrow which required an evacuation;
  • The release of ammonia gas in Dutch Harbor from some of Shell’s industry partners; and
  • Danglers off the St Johns bridge in Portland, Oregon.


He then stated the 4 areas he was going to discuss in his presentation, which is relevant not just to Alaska, but to all of Shell’s operations in the Arctic, including in Russia, Greenland, and proposed sites in Norway. The 4 topics he wanted to discuss were aviation, navigation, infrastructure, and people.


Looking across the Arctic from an emergency response perspective, you are dealing with a lot of places that don’t have a lot of road infrastructure. If there is a requirement to move things quickly in a time of emergency, it will require some kind of aviation capability, whether manned or unmanned. You need to ability to transport people, equipment, and have various capabilities that have the ability to go long distances rapidly.


Admiral Guadagnini stated that one of the biggest takeaways from Shell’s experience in the Alaskan Arctic over the past 30 years is that there has to be public-private partnerships to do these things. Given that Shell has realized they need to provide their own infrastructure if they are to operate in the Arctic, they brought their aviation capabilities with them, not just in terms of people and transportation, but also related to emergency response. When Shell was operating in Alaska, they had extensive emergency response capacity in Barrow, and even kicked the Coast Guard out of one of the hangars because they were willing to pay more.


One benefit to Shell bringing their capabilities with them is that those resources were able to be used by everyone in the region. Examples included the Coast Guard using Shell’s aviation capability, and the city of Barrow taking advantage of Shell’s search and rescue capability.


Furthermore, Shell also depended on the Coast Guard in the times where Shell’s search and rescue helicopters were not available. The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation has its own limited capability, and there is a lot of interest in what will happen to Shell’s Arctic infrastructure since their decision to leave Alaska.


The Admiral then talked about marine capabilities. To support Shell’s operation, they needed 30 vessels of all types, including Finnish icebreakers. This fleet is not ideal, a smaller fleet of multi-mission vessels is much more ideal than a larger fleet of single-mission capable vessels. Shell started to do some of this conversion on their own – adding Heli-decks to icebreakers, to try and build that multi mission capability not just to accomplish the mission of drilling, but also about having the capability to respond to spill emergencies.


On the topic of Arctic infrastructure, he said there is not much infrastructure, noting that the biggest city on the North Slope is Barrow, whose population is less than the amount of people on board a US aircraft carrier. The kind of infrastructure that we take for granted in the lower 48 when you are talking about emergency response does not exist in the Alaskan Arctic, nor in many other places where resource extraction might drive some kind of emergency response that has to go on.


For the Arctic to develop, we need to think about what type of infrastructure needs to be built, and who is going to pay that price. Public private partnerships will be key to successful thinking on this topic. In addition to ships, ports, and hangars, another type of infrastructure that you need to bring is the radio telecommunications infrastructure, which is absolutely critical.


Either you have the infrastructure in place or you bring it with you, but you have to account for that infrastructure in any case when you are dealing with an emergency.

One thing Shell realized very early was that they had to have some kind of integrated operations center where you could do real time monitoring of not only the exploration activity that is going on at that time, but also in the case of the emergency, Shell also had to be able to have a center like that to be able to respond and to fit in with the Coast Guard’s emergency response, and the State of Alaska’s emergency response capability. So, Shell built their own.


Shell’s emergency response capabilities already proved valuable in many instance. I August 2010, Shell’s vessel was called on by the US Coast Guard to rescue a ship in the Bering Sea that was foundering, so Shell’s vessel went out and assisted in the rescue in very bad weather, saving 28 people. (Even still, that only received a little press in Alaska)

He then compared this to a month ago, when Shell’s vessels were called by the Coast Guard again to rescue a French sailor whose sail boat was foundering in the Gulf of Alaska. Shell’s vessel went over in very bad weather to help this sailor, because he was in a place that the Coast Guard did not have the assets nor ability to operate in that time.


The last thing he talked about was people. In order to respond to emergencies, you need to have trained people that are capable of operating in those areas. Those people cannot be trained by centers, they need to be trained in the field, and mostly with the cooperation with indigenous peoples are the locals where you operate. That is where you get true training in Arctic capability- with people who have been there. The people who operate in the Arctic cross public and private areas, and have to be able to cooperate. The biggest aspect about surviving in the Arctic is cooperation.


Vessel Operator Perspective

Todd Busch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Technical Services for Crowley Maritime discussed responding to emergencies in the Arctic from a vessel operator perspective.


Busch said that ice roads are a major part of Arctic response capabilities as they provide the most effective way to support winter operations. Crowley also builds ice islands, an example of innovation in Arctic operation. Such projects require cooperation with other organizations, as no single group can do them on their own.


He discussed Arctic response transportation challenges, which include:

  • Lack of response equipment
  • Lack of special purposes assets
  • Short operating seasons
  • Weather constraints
  • Coordination difficulties
  • Limited synthetic aperture radar (SAR) capabilities
  • Limited communications
  • Limited medical support (Shell had a great medical system in place during the summer, but now it’s gone)
  • Oil on ice clean-up difficulties


Delving into the support challenges, he discussed:

  • The great distances involved
  • Lack of infrastructure
  • Limited support service providers
  • Ice conditions
  • Shallow water restrictions

Crowley does not think Nome is the best site for an Arctic deep water port in Nome because of its ongoing maintenance requirements.


Busch said time is required to develop Arctic infrastructure. The projects require a catalyst and serious justification for infrastructure support and stability. Neither the state nor the federal government has the funds to build projects, and not many commercial operators are interested. Previously, oil and gas development provided the driving factor.


The cycle has repeated itself where infrastructure is built up, facility improvements are made, and then oil prices drop, making Arctic operations non-economical. Some of the infrastructure stays, but the rest is removed. From a logistics standpoint, obtaining capable vessels is difficult unless they can remain offshore for the whole development period. Something needs to happen to build sustainable infrastructure.


When looking at sustainability, cost is a big consideration in decision making, Busch said. Everything costs three to five times more in the Arctic. Busch said his Canadian counterparts tell him the ratio is five to 25 times more for their activities.


Busch described the next steps that need to be taken:

  • Better collaboration between industry and government. Not everyone is operating with an open book and being transparent, and that needs to be improved.
  • Uniform standards and codes need to be put in place. The Polar Code has been released and, by putting standards in place for equipment and training, it is a vast improvement over past procedures. Arctic operations require a different mentality and training set.
  • Improvements in charting and weather/ice forecasting.
  • Continued scenario planning and drills.
  • More training for Arctic operations.
  • SAR agreements and mutual cooperation.
  • The regional presence of assets designed for Arctic operations
  • Established logistics infrastructure.



During the Marine Board’s discussion period, the speakers were asked three broad questions:

  • How can the Marine Board help today?
  • What technical areas need exploring?
  • Are there national policy issues that the Marine Board (Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Science-Engineering-Medicine) can help inform?


The subject of the new National Search and Rescue Committee—a federal level committee formed to coordinate civil search & rescue (SAR) interagency matters—was also raised.

One audience member asked about the procurement process and the barriers created by federal regulations. If the federal government is spending billions of dollars, he said, a one year operating lease doesn’t seem worthwhile.


Another audience member said various creative methods exist for procuring, building, and operating multi-mission Coast Guard cutters.


Busch was asked if the Coast Guard may have an opportunity to use public-private partnerships for support, especially if oil and gas producers should resume working in Arctic waters.


Busch said the Coast Guard could help Crowley meet its missions in Alaska and the Arctic through improvements in communications, charting, and navigation. Great new technology could be used if there was more charting. For infrastructure, sustainability is the key.


Beyond the existing facilities, the public and private sectors can look at opportunities together and design a scalable port that meets Coast Guard requirements and can be used by oil and gas companies when resume Arctic operations.


The existing vessel traffic system is very good, Busch said, but it operates in limited areas. A question was raised about how U.S. Navy strategy relates to Coast Guard strategy. The answer is the U.S. Navy had developed the Arctic Roadmap, and that USCG—with its present mission—operates with greater urgency.


The following is a summary of other topics covered during audience comments and questions.

  • From the U.S. Navy’s perspective, two platforms operate in the Arctic – submarines and a maritime fleet. Naval surface ships are not designed for Arctic operations, and the navy doesn’t have a division with Arctic experience.
  • One of the main takeaways from the Arctic Shield military exercise was that seasonal mobility remains a good strategy for the Coast Guard. Cruise ships that venture to the farthest north must meet standards—which should be enforced internationally—to ensure proper equipment and crew training. The International Maritime Standard (IMO) Polar Code brings a whole package of shipping amendments to the shipping requirements for large ships only. In addition, the US has regulatory and customs authority, but there is some controversy associated with that in regard to heavy fuel oil use in the Arctic.
  • The IMO Polar Code tries to adopt new standards on a consensus basis in order to balance all of the affected parties’ interests. It is still incomplete in regard to training, salvage ports implementation, and ports of refuge. It was a good first step for establishing broad international regulations for the entire Arctic, but will need more work to determine the specifics.
  • If the traditional ship building process is used for U.S. icebreakers, they will cost more than $1 billion each. For that price, Finland could build four icebreakers. As a consequence, shipbuilding costs need to be lowered in the U.S. To do so, requires creative approaches. For instance, to get the desired horsepower for the ship, gas turbines with controllable pitch propellers could be used. A question was asked if the U.S. has the ability to build this type of ship.
  • In response to a comment about looking into an off-shelf design that is “as good as you can get,” a speaker said that when you invest in this kind of vessel, which will be in use for 50 years, you don’t want to invest in something that only serves half of your needs. An industry-focused study that predicts the future level of Arctic shipping would be an invaluable resource.
  • Sea ice loss poses a greater challenge than sea level rise, because open water produces more mechanical wave energy that removes collateral material from the thawed thermokarst layer of northern permafrost. By creating conditions for ground slumping and erosion, forest fires also contribute to thermokarst thaw.