EDITORIAL: Nome fuel run highlights spirit, challenges of Alaska

As evidenced by the endless lineup of “reality” television shows filmed in our state, Alaska makes for good television. No contrived drama on a crab boat or a suction dredge was more compelling in 2012, though, than the sight of the Coast Guard cutter Healy clearing a path through the frozen Bering Sea for a Russian tanker to deliver vital heating oil and gasoline to Nome this January.

After an early winter storm prevented the last scheduled fuel delivery to Nome, the community and surrounding villages faced the prospect of supply shortages by March or $9 per gallon gas if it had to be flown in.

At the time, the human element versus Mother Nature and the parallels to the Serum Run to Nome in 1925 that inspires the Iditarod today made for enough of a story to draw eyes from around the globe.

But on further reflection as we review the top stories of the year, the run of the Russian tanker Renda to an iced-in harbor cleared by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel said so much more about the spirit of Alaska, the challenges we face and our ability to overcome.

First, the weather. What others consider extreme, we consider routine. Fuel and supply deliveries to harbors like Nome or to villages up the Yukon or Kuskokwim rivers must happen before freeze-up, a fact of life rural Alaskans take for granted in the same way Lower 48ers know they can always find cocoa and marshmallows at a grocer that’s probably only a few minutes drive away.

 Which leads us to another aspect of the story — the fragility of our supply chain. Whether it’s a fuel tanker headed for Nome or a Horizon container ship from Tacoma on its weekly run to Anchorage, we depend on deliveries from Outside that are one natural disaster away from being interrupted. The 5.9 magnitude earthquake that shook Anchorage Dec. 4 combined with warnings about the vulnerability of the Port of Anchorage dock construction should serve as a fresh reminder to all of us to be prepared.

And while Alaska must ensure we have a durable infrastructure, the Renda fuel run highlighted the woeful shortcomings in our Coast Guard fleet when it comes to icebreaking capability. The Healy, the smallest of the Coast Guard icebreakers, was also the only one available to provide aid with the other two laid up for either repairs or possible decommissioning.

With ongoing development in the Arctic Ocean, federal resources must be directed to building up the infrastructure and Coast Guard assets in Alaska. Yes, budgets are tight and our debt must be brought under control, but putting the resources into construction and shipbuilding are a far better use of taxpayer funds than the billions we are now pouring into unemployment and food stamps.

The story of the Renda further drew attention to the high cost of energy in the state. It’s hard to imagine a situation elsewhere in the U.S. for which such a risky mission was actually the most cost effective means to deliver fuel, but in this case it was.

Of course we must take a moment here to thank the amazing men and women of the Coast Guard who play such a vital role in Alaska, and whose sacrifice and bravery protect our communities and the fearless fishermen who ply our waters in the most dangerous conditions imaginable.

Finally, the Renda fuel run was a fine example of the public and private sectors working together. All too often in Alaska, we have to take on a federal government that is either singling us out — targeting Bypass Mail or Alaska Railroad funding — or attempting to apply a one-size-fits-all approach as is the case with the Emission Control Area that threatens to raise the cost of everything shipped here and to devastate our tourism economy.

However, in this case we had a private company, Vitus Marine, contract with one of our Alaska Native corporations, Sitnasuak Corp., to arrange the delivery with the aid of a public asset from the Coast Guard.

Vitus Marine isn’t done helping Alaska, either. The company is constructing a 5-million gallon tank farm at Port MacKenzie that has the prospect to bring competition to the Alaska fuel market and lower prices. Using technologically advanced tug-and-barge systems, Vitus spent the summer after the Renda run continuing to deliver fuel and goods to Western Alaska.

We need strong private companies like Vitus and a responsible public sector at the local and federal level in Alaska. The only way to make that happen is with the resourceful and hearty spirit of the Last Frontier on display during the Renda’s run to Nome.

Here’s hoping we see more of that in 2013, and Happy Holidays to all.

12/19/2012 - 11:15am