SEATTLE — A quarter-century after a drunk captain and his fatigued crew ran the Exxon Valdez onto a reef where it spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, new rules are taking shape to prevent a similar disaster in the rapidly opening Arctic Ocean.
There, melting sea ice is opening a new frontier for cruise and cargo ships as well as prospectors for oil, gas, and hard rock minerals.
A key goal of the new rules is to ensure people skilled in navigating ice-strewn seas are aboard every vessel in Arctic and Antarctic waters, according to Lawson Brigham, a distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who has participated in the development of the so-called Polar Code for more than 20 years.
Today, there are just a handful of people in the world with the appropriate training and skills for safe navigation in polar waters, he explained at a recent workshop on the code in Seattle. The meeting was sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard, which is the country's representative to the International Maritime Organization, an agency of the United Nations that sets standards for the shipping industry.
Within years, Brigham said, "throughout the United States maritime market we may have Statoil, Shell, (and) Conoco Phillips all with their armada of ships with hundreds of vessels and thousands of transits (in the Arctic).The question is: What is the competency of the people in the pilot house?"
'A huge gap'
A series of poor decisions in the pilot house of the Exxon Valdez were largely responsible for its grounding, according to a government investigation. While that spill led to regional shipping regulations that make the Prince William Sound among the safest places to operate in the world, they don't apply to polar waters. Instead, most polar ships comply with the same regulations they do for the rest of the world's oceans.
"That in and of itself is a huge gap because operating in the Arctic has its own dangers, its own risks, and industrial activity in that region also has unique impacts on Arctic ecosystems," Elena Agarkova, the senior shipping officer for the environmental group World Wildlife Fund in New York, told NBC News in a telephone interview.
Among the concerns highlighted by environmental and policy experts are frigid temperatures that hinder the smooth operation of machinery, ice-littered waters that can make for perilous navigation, and the paucity of infrastructure for even routine chores such as environmentally-safe disposal of ship sewage, let alone a timely response to a marine accident such as an oil spill.
"There isn't a safety net," Brigham explained to NBC News during a break at the workshop. "So you've got to have that safety net within the ship itself and the competency of the people."
Traffic on the rise
Competence in the pilot house or not, polar ship traffic is on the rise, especially in the Arctic. Some 440 ships crossed through the Bering Strait in 2013 up from 220 five years earlier, lieutenant commander Jason Boyle with the U.S. Coast Guard District 17 in Juneau, Alaska, noted at the workshop. "I expect those numbers to be even greater for 2014 and on as maritime traffic increases in the region," he said.
Indeed, several workshop participants represented companies with growing Arctic operations that are grappling with concerns about how implementation of the new rules will impact their businesses.
"There are implications for the Polar Code that haven't been fully thought through," Timothy Keane, senior manager of Arctic operations and projects for Fednav Limited, a Montreal, Canada-based shipping company, explained to NBC News at the workshop. For example, he noted, the code requires certified ice navigators on ships but there are no clear guidelines on the procedure to gain certification.
Despite the concerns, the part of the code that pertains to ship safety, including navigators, is up for adoption at a meeting of the International Maritime Organization this November in London. If adopted, the rules would then likely go into force by 2017.
The Polar Code is not a singular document, but rather a series of amendments to existing conventions of the International Maritime Organization including one for the Safety of Life at Sea and another for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. All told, the amendments establish mandatory requirements for the design, equipment and operation of ships in the polar regions.
"It isn't designed as a barrier to use; it is designed to facilitate safe use of the ocean," explained Brigham, who called the code "a new, historic, seminal regime for the Arctic and Antarctic because it is putting in rules and regulations which don't exist."
Elements of the code governing environmental protections are scheduled for adoption next April. The six-month lag in approval and adoption of the environmental portion of the code provides stakeholders more time to shape its contents, including regulations governing use of heavy fuel oil, air pollutants, and the impact of ship traffic on marine mammals.
"Safety measures are important," World Wildlife Fund's Agarkova said. "But environmental protections are also of utmost importance. And the Polar Code should be addressing both."