Federal officials will take another look at the historic Alaska community of Nome as a possible port serving ships heading for the Arctic.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it has signed an agreement with the city of Nome to examine whether benefits justify costs of navigation improvements, said Bruce Sexauer, chief of civil works for the Corps' Alaska District.
"The study will look at economic and social reasons to see if expanding the port is in the federal interest," he said.
The study process generally takes three years and could culminate in a Corps' recommendation to Congress to authorize port improvements, Sexauer said.
Alaska lacks deep-water ports along most of its west and northwest coast. The nearest permanent U.S. Coast Guard station is Kodiak more than 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) away.
Arctic marine traffic continues to grow and Nome, though south of the Arctic Circle, is well situated south of the Pacific chokepoint to the Arctic, the Bering Strait, Sexauer said.
A joint federal-state study started in 2008 looked at alternatives for Arctic ports in the Bering and Chukchi seas. Nome became the top choice because of infrastructure already in place, including an airport that handles jets, a hospital and fuel supply facilities.
"It just needed to be bigger and deeper," Sexauer said
However, economic justification for the port diminished in late 2015 when Royal Dutch Shell PLC drilled a dry hole in the Chukchi Sea and suspended its U.S. Arctic offshore drilling program.
"The benefits for a project at Nome went away, at least the oil and gas benefits," Sexauer said. The Corps paused its study with the state and officially terminated it last month, Sexauer said.
The study with the city will again look at how a Nome port would aid marine traffic for petroleum development, mining and regional delivery of fuel and other products.
Federal law changed in 2016 to allow the Corps to also consider social benefits, such as support of search and rescue operations, national security and aid to communities to help them be sustainable.
The Port of Nome remains too shallow to handle large ships. Fuel tankers stay anchored in deep water and fuel is lightered to Nome.
Nome's inner harbor in 2014 was just 10 feet (3 meters) deep and its outer harbor was less than 23 feet (7 meters) deep. The Corps that year looked at constructing docks up to 1,000 feet (305 meters) long and dredging to 35 feet (10.7 meters).
The Corps in late April has scheduled a planning meeting in Nome to detail the scope of the new study.