Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil

Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage. Ross Coen, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 215 pages with color and black and white photos, soft cover, $24.95.

Breaking Ice for Arctic OilChristopher Columbus sailed west in 1492 hoping to find a new way to the riches of the Orient, but an undiscovered land mass stretching 10,000 miles north to south blocked his way. Ferdinand Magellan found a way around South America by way of Cape Horn, but until recently, the Northwest Passage around North America was more of a Northwest Blockage, at least to commercial vessels.

While Columbus and other explorers sought gold, it was another precious commodity, oil, that finally drew a merchantman through the Arctic ice. Historian Ross Coen of the University of Alaska chronicles the story of the first commercial ship to pass through the fabled northern sea route in Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen first conquered the Passage by ship in 1906, but the ice kept commercial vessels at bay until Humble Oil, now part of Exxon, saw an opportunity to profit.

Coen shows how the 1968 discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay changed the commercial shipping dynamics of the Arctic. Oil companies quickly latched onto a pipeline as the best way to get the oil out of the frozen north, but Humble Oil thought that a fleet of tankers could get the oil to east coast markets more cheaply, and thus more profitably. It refitted one of the world’s first super-tankers, the SS Manhattan, as an icebreaker, and sent it north in 1969. At first glance, the venture seems audacious, even foolhardy, but Coen successfully shows that the voyage was strictly business.

The political context of the voyage was labyrinthine: Environmentalists worried about the effects of an enormous oil spill on land or at sea, while most Alaskans saw Prudhoe Bay as delivering their state from its status as an economic backwater. Meantime, Canada resisted what some saw as an American incursion, thought it ultimately became a partner of sorts in the voyage. Though he does an excellent job of laying out these intrigues, Coen’s story shines as he describes the incredible natural barriers that literally held the huge ship back and the determination of her crew to get her to Prudhoe Bay.

Though finally an economic failure, the voyage of the SS Manhattan should be remembered as a pioneering trip through a remote wilderness that may be tamed by humans in an unexpected way. If the predictions of climate change come to pass, the Arctic will no longer be choked with ice in the next few decades, and ships may follow the trail blazed by the tanker through the Northwest Passage as easily as they pass through the Panama Canal. The Passage may finally become the economic boon the Manhattan sought.

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