ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A Russian fuel tanker expected to make the first-ever winter fuel delivery by sea to Western Alaska suffered a setback when it was unable to load gasoline in Japan as originally planned, according to the Coast Guard. And some serious hurdles remain before the vessel and a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker can cross some 300 miles of sea ice and deliver fuel to Nome.
In November, a massive Bering Sea storm prevented a barge from delivering gasoline, diesel and home heating fuel to Nome. With gas prices expected to jump to as much as $9 a gallon if fuel had to be flown in, officials began looking at other options. The private Russian ice tanker Renda and the Coast Guard's icebreaker Healy were enlisted and are still set to deliver some 1.5 million gallons of petroleum products to Nome. But the plans were changed a bit last week, the Coast Guard said.
The 370-foot tanker loaded diesel in Korea, but poor weather and problems with international shipping regulations meant it could not take on gasoline in Japan as planned, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis. The Renda is now sailing toward Dutch Harbor, where it is expected to finish loading fuel before heading to Nome, Francis said Saturday.
It's unclear how that change might affect fuel prices or when exactly the Renda will arrive in Dutch Harbor, Francis said.
"Yesterday they were in the Sea of Japan, so they have a ways to go yet," she said. "They're plugging along."
With the help of the Healy smashing through an estimated 300 miles of ice blocking the way to Nome, the Renda is expected to reach the city in early January, Francis said. If the ships are unable to reach shore, the Renda may use a hose more than a mile long to deliver fuel.
Before that can happen, though, the Renda will have to first pass a Coast Guard inspection in Dutch Harbor and a fuel transfer plan will have to be in place, Francis said. Only then will the Renda and Healy set out for Nome, she said.
Meantime, the Coast Guard will continue to conduct reconnaissance flights to look for ridges in the sea ice and other characteristics that might make it more difficult to break through, Francis said.