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Home » Money » U.S. Army Corps approves $618m plan to expand Port of Nome (Pop. 3,666). Why?

U.S. Army Corps approves $618m plan to expand Port of Nome (Pop. 3,666). Why?

PortandTerminal.com, June 9, 2020

A long-sought plan for a deepwater port in Nome, Alaska appears to finally be gaining momentum.

NOME, AK – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commander Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite approved a $618 million plan June 1 to expand the Port of Nome.

That just leaves approval from Congress as the last major hurdle for a project that many officials hope is just the first in a series of infrastructure developments in the region.

The latest plan calls for roughly doubling the length of the port’s existing west causeway to reach approximately 2,100 feet farther into Norton Sound with a nearly 1,400-foot breakwater to protect the harbor entrance from incoming waves. The L-shaped barrier would also hold two new 450-foot and one new 600-foot docks to handle the larger vessels that have started calling on Nome, according to Corps officials.

The existing east causeway-breakwater would be demolished and replaced with a larger, 3,900-foot causeway-breakwater that would greatly expand the port’s outer basin. Approximately three-quarters of the material from the existing east causeway would be used to build its replacement, according to the study.

The bigger outer port basin would also be dredged deeper — from 22 feet currently to 28 feet — and the three new docks would be near the end of the longer west causeway-breakwater in an area dredged to at least 40 feet deep.

Why do it?

The are three main reasons to invest so much money in a port that serves a community of just 3,866 residents. We published a piece outlining these three reasons back in January 2020 when the Nome expansion plan was still in discussion. Here’s a summary of what we learned.

1. Reduce the cost of goods to help the local community

A rendering of what a deep-draft port in Nome would look like if expansion plans are completed. Image shows wharfs with a tanker and cruise ship both docked
A rendering of what a deep-draft port in Nome would look like when expansion plans are completed.

One reason given is that expanding the port will allow visits from larger ships which in turn will help the local community.

The logic goes that by being able to accept larger vessels at its port, the residents of Nome and outlying communities will benefit from lower-cost goods. The bigger the ship, the greater the efficiency and the lower the cost of goods that it brings in by sea.

This is probably the weakest reason for spending $618 million on expanding the port. If you really wanted to help local residents benefit from lower-cost goods, there are cheaper ways to do it. One way would be to change the Jones Act.

The Jones Act forces communities in Alaska (for example) to use only American flagged cargo lines when they import goods. But there aren’t many domestic carriers who fit the bill. That keeps the competition between the few shipping companies who are Jones Act compliant low and the shipping costs they charge their customers high.

The Jones Act is seen by many as a big reason why goods in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico cost a lot more than they should.

2. Arctic sea routes are opening up

As the ice melts, more cargo will be shipped through the Arctic. Nome needs to be ready to accept these larger vessels.
As the ice melts, more cargo will be shipped through the Arctic. Nome needs to be ready to accept these larger vessels.

A better reason to invest the $618 million in Nome is to accommodate the surge of larger tankers and cruise ships that will inevitably be using the Arctic sea routes as they open up thanks to climate change.

“Within about 20 years there’s going to be over-the-pole traffic to Europe through the Bering Strait,” vice-chair of the Nome Port Commission Charlie Lean said. “This is the gateway to the ‘new Suez Canal,’ if you will.”

“We’re the furthest north port of entry for the U.S. for customs,” Nome harbor master Lucas Stotts said. “Any [transient vessels] that come over the top need to stop in Nome and that is only going to increase. Whether the locals or anybody else wants it, that traffic is going to increase and we want to be in front of it to make sure we are as prepared to protect the region and help grow with it.”

3. American sovereignty and strategic control

As the ice melts, more cargo will be shipped through the Arctic. Nome needs to be ready to accept these larger vessels.
Russia launched its weaponized icebreaker Ivan Papanin in October. The vessel can cut through almost five-foot thick ice and is heavily armed.

Finally, one of the best reasons to invest $618 million into the Port of Nome is that America needs to catch up with Russia and China to avoid losing control over the Arctic.

“You don’t have sovereignty unless you can exert it,”

Retired Admiral Thad Allen, former Coast Guard commandant

Put plainly, United States is losing control over the Arctic to Russia and China because it has failed to build the ships, ports and other infrastructure it needs to be there.

The United States is finally building a new Coast Guard icebreaker, the new Polar Security Cutter, but as of yet, there’s no port in the U.S. Arctic where it can dock.  Expanding the Port of Nome gives the new Polar Security Cutter a home and enables America to project its influence in the region.

In the long-run, protecting America’s interests in the Arctic is the smartest reason to spend $618 million dollars expanding the Port of Nome. Everything else is gravy as they say.

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