Manhattan Anniversary Spotlights Arctic Tanker Safety

By Wendy Laursen 2014-09-18 08:21:00

Forty-five years ago, just two months after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, another historic exploration milestone took place in Alaska. The icebreaking tanker SS Manhattan arrived at Barter Island on September, 18, 1969. 

The ship had been commissioned by Humble Oil to test the feasibility of using tankers to transport crude from the recently discovered Prudhoe Bay oil field. The Manhattan was the largest U.S. merchant ship of its day and the first commercial vessel to transit the Northwest Passage. 

The next day, the SS Manhattan arrived offshore Prudhoe Bay just one week after the state’s first major oil lease sale. At Prudhoe, Humble Oil staged the “golden barrel” ceremony in which one barrel was filled with crude and loaded on the ship which then returned via the Northwest Passage to New York City. After a stop at Barrow, Alaska, the ship returned via the Northwest Passage to New York City, arriving on November 12, 1969. 

The construction of the SS Manhattan was a significant engineering feat in its day. Retrofitting the tanker for ice conditions required cutting the ship into four pieces which were then sent to shipyards in four U.S. states and then later reassembled. 

As the voyage transited Canadian waters, it also jump-started international attention to sovereignty and control of Arctic waters. Canada required that the ship be escorted by a Canadian icebreaker and also moved to pass the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, a first attempt at exerting protections and control in international arctic waters. 

The ship was greeted in Alaska by the icebreaking U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Northwind under the command of Captain Donald J. McCann. The Northwind achieved a significant historic first during its mission to accompany the SS Manhattan by becoming the first ship in history to complete the Northwest Passage in both directions in a single season.

The Northwind's voyage was beset with trouble. First a damaged crankshaft and then stuck in the ice, it required help from the Canadian icebreaker John A. MacDonald. The MacDonald also suffered ice damage to its propeller during the voyage. 

“Many of the same hazards identified by the historic passage of the SS Manhattan still apply today: lack of infrastructure, lack of emergency response, poor communications, inadequate charts, and the inability to respond to arctic oil spills,” says Kevin Harun, Arctic Program Director for Pacific Environment. “Of course, icebreaking tankers are not yet in use to transport Prudhoe crude, but Arctic shipping is quickly accelerating. U.S. waters are affected by international shipping along our Arctic coastline and by shipping through the Bering Strait which connects Asia to the Russian Arctic and northern Europe. 

“There are concerns that the most pressing issue, a spill of heavy fuel oil, is not being addressed in the Polar Code,” says Harun. “The Arctic Council, which the US will chair next year, identified the release of oil as the “most significant threat” to the Arctic marine environment in their 2009 assessment of Arctic shipping.”  

Harun recommends that heavy fuel oil be banned in Arctic waters and that lighter, distillate fuels be required.  In the event of a spill, lighter fuels would dissipate more quickly and cause less harm to the environment. There is precedent for banning heavy fuel oil in sensitive waters, including the waters of the Antarctic, he says.  

The real and only valid reason for using heavy fuels is cost, says Captain Joe Wubbold. Wubbold has commanded six different U.S. Coast Guard cutters in his career, including Northwind. “The changeover to distillate fuels would be expensive. If the objective is to keep heavy fuels out of the Arctic, it would have to be over a long period of time, would have to be either by separate treaty or inside IMO, and it would have to be with the hope that there is no spill. 

“In the meantime, a higher risk comes with the potential for spilling crude from drill rigs. That risk comes from not only the dangerous and complicated work necessary to extract the crude from under the ocean, and now possibly the ice, but from the ships that are used around the rigs. The recent accident in the Gulf of Mexico will only be exaggerated in both intensity and complexity of correction and cleanup if it has to be done in the high latitudes. And whether the spill is crude, or any of the fractions coming from that crude, and whether from a drill rig or a ship itself, far better to make sure insofar as possible that there be no spills, than to concentrate on just one product, heavy fuels, to the exclusion of the others,” says Wubbold.

He continues: “Using Antarctica as a precedent for prohibiting heavy fuels does not provide us with a valid comparison. Antarctica is under a treaty regime, which can move comparatively quickly.  Further, the only ships that go to Antarctica are the resupply ships to the various stations, the icebreakers that support them, and the cruise ships of various sizes that go in the Antarctic summer. Compared to the rest of the world, not that many ships, and the profits to be derived from the cruise ships will quickly amortize out the costs of changing the fuel handling and burning equipment to distillate fuel.”

Felix Tschudi, owner of the Tschudi Group, points to the impact a ban on heavy fuel oil would have on Arctic cargo shipping. Tschudi pioneered the first bulk vessel to sail the Northern Sea Route in 2010. “There are no large vessels, like bulk-carriers, that are not running on heavy fuel oil today. If it comes, such a ban for the Arctic, nobody will sail there but instead use the Suez or other sea routes,” he said at a conference earlier this year. 

He believes it is a myth that heavy fuel oil holds greater risk than other oil products. “It might be that light oil could be spread much more. This must be investigated. That’s why I think we should focus on oil pollution as such rather than specific oil products.”

Jim Elliott, vice president of salvage at T&T Marine Salvage cites the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration summary of oil types (below). “Once spilled, heavy oils are persistent in the environment, degrading slowly with the potential for severe impacts to marine life. From a salvor’s perspective, the primary goal should be to prevent the release of oil and other pollutants into the environment, particularly in the Arctic where environmental conditions and logistical constraints may hinder an effective response.”

Marine conservationist and former professor at University of Alaska, Rick Steiner, believes that even with the best spill prevention systems possible, there will always be human error and mechanical failure. “Industry and government must remain vigilant. To guard against complacency, citizen stakeholders need to be empowered to provide effective, independent oversight. The Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council (RCAC) established in Prince William Sound after the 1989 spill, receiving more than $3 million year from the Trans Alaska Pipeline owners, has proven tremendously effective at engaging local citizens in improving the safety of oil operations. This model should be replicated elsewhere, including the Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico, and Puget Sound. Unfortunately, the oil industry habitually opposes the creation of such citizens’ councils.”

Existing mechanisms are not enough, says Steiner. “The general public is asked to review and comment on an overwhelming stream of technically complex documents, but is outmatched by well-paid industry advocates. A legitimate, well-funded, independent Arctic RCAC giving stakeholders a direct say in all offshore industrial development is an essential component of protecting the Arctic Ocean ecosystem and coastal communities, and should clearly be a prerequisite to any further offshore development.”

The odds against landing safely on the moon were over-whelming for many years. Like space travel, it is likely that the technical challenges associated with developing and protecting the Arctic will eventually be overcome. The role of the Polar Code is to ensure there will be few tragedies along the way. The next IMO Polar Code meeting will be held in London on October 13.

NOAA’s assessment of oil spill cleanup of different types of oil:

When spilled, the various types of oil can affect the environment differently. They also differ in how hard they are to clean up. Spill responders group oil into four basic types, which you can see here, along with a general summary of how each type can affect shorelines.

Type 1: Very Light Oils (Jet Fuels, Gasoline)

Highly volatile (should evaporate within 1-2 days).
High concentrations of toxic (soluble) compounds.
Localized, severe impacts to water column and intertidal resources.
No cleanup possible.

Type 2: Light Oils (Diesel, No. 2 Fuel Oil, Light Crudes)

Moderately volatile; will leave residue (up to one-third of spill amount) after a few days.
Moderate concentrations of toxic (soluble) compounds.
Will "oil" intertidal resources with long-term contamination potential.
Cleanup can be very effective.

Type 3: Medium Oils (Most Crude Oils)

About one-third will evaporate within 24 hours.
Oil contamination of intertidal areas can be severe and long-term.
Oil impacts to waterfowl and fur-bearing mammals can be severe.
Cleanup most effective if conducted quickly.

Type 4: Heavy Oils (Heavy Crude Oils, No. 6 Fuel Oil, Bunker C)

Little or no evaporation or dissolution.
Heavy contamination of intertidal areas likely.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.