Hawaii & Alaska
The Indigenous village of Diomede sits in the middle of the Bering Strait, on the American side. (U.S. Coast Guard/Richard Brahm)

AK - Alaska watches, nervously, as Ukraine war pushes more Russian oil through Bering Strait

The war in Ukraine appears to be driving a sharp increase in shipments of Russian oil to China through the Bering Strait, prompting new warnings that the traffic threatens the isolated villages and residents’ fish and wildlife harvests on the American side of the border.

“I feel pretty confident that it’s the start of a trend,” said Andrew Hartsig, the Anchorage-based senior director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic program. He added: “Alaska’s communities and coastlines are at risk in the event of an accident.”

So far this summer, at least five tankers have set out carrying Russian crude across the Northern Sea Route to China, according to Bloomberg — a voyage that, for oil tankers, had been attempted just twice before.

An Arctic-focused publication, High North News, said that the traffic is going both ways: The second-ever large container ship to transit the sea route left China in early August bound for St. Petersburg.

Experts warn that an Arctic oil spill could be catastrophic. With high shipping costs typically translating into steep prices for groceries, foods harvested from the ocean — fish, whales, seals, walrus — are essential for subsistence.

“That’s our main source of food security, from the Bering Sea,” Ben Pungowiyi, the president of the tribal government in the 800-person village of Savoonga, said in an interview.

Policymakers and advocates have long predicted that global warming-driven sea ice melt will make the Northern Sea Route — from Northern Europe to Asia through the Bering Strait — increasingly attractive to the global shipping industry.

If summer ice conditions allow, passage across the Arctic can cut shipping times by two weeks over the traditional Russia-to-Asia route through the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal.

And the Ukraine conflict appears to be accelerating that trend, as Western sanctions cut off European markets and leave China and India as Russia’s two largest customers for oil.

While the ships are free to pass through the Bering Strait, its 55-mile width means that any spills would be likely to drift toward Alaska communities. Advocacy groups, residents and the government officials who represent them say that the increased traffic underscores the need for the U.S. government to enhance its programs and infrastructure to respond to accidents.

“We’re concerned about it and we’re pushing, hoping to get some funding,” Pungowiyi said. “We’re right smack in the middle of the Bering Strait, and you want to be able to respond.”

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