By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A Russian tanker was expected to finish offloading 1.3 million gallons of fuel in Nome as early as Wednesday night, officials said, easing an energy shortage in the ice-bound Alaskan port city.
The Renda, a 370-foot ice-class tanker sent to Nome from its home port in Vladivostok, has already pumped its gasoline cargo to shore and is now finishing the delivery of diesel, said Jason Evans, board chairman of the Sitnasuak Native Corp., the company that arranged for the unusual icebreaking mission.
The Renda, escorted by a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, is making the first-ever winter marine delivery of fuel to northwestern Alaska.
Fuel is typically barged in to Nome, which lacks outside road access, during summer and fall. The last scheduled delivery was canceled after one of the worst storms to hit the region in decades swept the Bering Sea town of 3,600.
The missed barge shipment meant Nome could face sparse fuel supplies and, if fuel had to be flown into town, extremely high prices by late winter, Sitnasuak warned. Gasoline currently costs about $6 a gallon in Nome, Mayor Denise Michels said.
Michels said caution was more important that speedy fuel flow from the Renda, which arrived in town on Friday and began sending fuel to onshore storage tanks late Monday.
"We're not pushing. We want to make sure this transfer is done safely. If it takes another 24 hours, so be it," she said.
By the time the fuel-laden Renda reached Nome on Friday, Evans said, Sitnasuak subsidiary Bonanza Fuel had run out of diesel and was buying supplies from Nome's only other distributor. The company was two weeks from running out of gasoline, he said.
A prolonged cold snap, with temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees, had also pressured local supplies.
Thanks to the Renda and its Coast Guard escort, the Healy, there are now likely sufficient fuel stockpiles to last until the next barges are able to arrive in June, Evans said.
The Renda mission has drawn criticism, with some suggesting it wasted Coast Guard resources. Critics say Nome had the alternative of flying in fuel, which suppliers in some remote Alaska villages are already doing in the face of harsh weather and prices nearing $10 a gallon.
Some Alaska officials say the Renda fuel delivery and the Healy's escort role highlights the need for the United States to improve its Arctic icebreaking capacity and participation in Arctic shipping.
Michels, who has long campaigned for more Coast Guard presence in Nome, said Bering Strait-area shipping has boomed and needs better controls.
In 1990, there were only 30 marine dockings in Nome, but in the past three years that number has been about 300 annually, she said.
Vessels are traveling the region for a variety of purposes, including oil exploration, commercial fishing, scientific research and tourism, she said.
"Every year, there are increases in transit, either on the U.S. side or the Russian side," Michels said.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Dan Burns)