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Oil, Water Do Mix, Submariner Contends

December 18, 1985|BILL MANSON

SAN DIEGO — Retired Navy Capt. Alfred Scott McLaren, 54, has a bee in his bonnet: submarines. He has lived in them for nearly a quarter of a century, prowling around under the North Pole or surveying the scarcely known waters of the Arctic. And always he has felt that there must be other things you could do with these magnificent fish.

A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of England who grew up in San Diego and was based here from 1955 to 1957, he discussed his ideas at the recent Oceans '85 conference in San Diego. But much earlier, as he slid between the ceiling of hanging ice-mountains and the mud floor of the Arctic seabed, safe from the raging storms above, he kept asking himself, "What else, what else are these good for?"

It was only after he left nuclear subs, retired from command of a Navy research establishment and decided to become a student again, that the answer came--in the form of someone else's problem.

How to get oil out of the High Arctic? It was the last of a long line of headaches facing oilmen exploring the Far North as part of the West's drive toward energy self-sufficiency. They had found the oil and gas; that was the easy part. Originally, they were talking about 60 billion barrels of oil alone--enough to make a second Middle East of the Arctic. They have dropped their estimates, but no one doubts that the Beaufort Sea-Northwest Passage area is bulging with carbon-based fuels. Oil companies had managed to cope with the appalling weather, using new techniques to drill offshore through ice in temperatures that would freeze even oil. But they had not come to terms with transportation.

Oilman's Nightmare

What was needed was a reliable, year-round means of getting the oil and gas out of the Beaufort Sea-Northwest Passage area to an ice-free port, at least. Pipelines, the usual first choice, are difficult when wells are out at sea. And pipes laid under Arctic seas have hazards all their own.

Huge expense is just the start. In the shallow waters of the Beaufort Sea, ice floes come spinning off from their slow clockwise waltz around the Pole and often scrape ashore, gouging the seabed under force of wind and current. Any pipe underneath is sure to rupture. Nobody yet knows the effects of an oil spill in Arctic conditions. It would be an oilman's nightmare. Repairing a gushing under-ice pipe would be ghastly, if not impossible. Spilled oil would become trapped under the ice, and in those temperatures would take years longer to break down than in warmer waters.

Surface oil tankers are the obvious solution. But Arctic offshore is different from all others. With its raging weather, ice packs, icebergs, and long winter night, no tanker--not even ice-strengthened--can promise a punctual, reliable year-round service.

All this was surfacing just as McLaren was looking for a thesis subject. He was studying for a master's degree in 1981 and 1982 at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England.

Perhaps it was the oilmen's problem that awoke his old preoccupations. At any rate, there, suddenly, was a thesis subject: Giving submarines a commercial role in the Arctic. Fill 'em with oil! Build an oil tanker that goes underwater--under ice--under all the atrocious storms.

U.S. Navy Adm. L. Galantin had pointed out 25 years ago that fully laden surface tankers are already nine-tenths submarine, constrained to the surface for the sake of the top-hamper on its few remaining feet of freeboard.

"It requires little imagination," he had said, "and very simple engineering to go all the way in putting the ship underwater and producing a simpler, more efficient hull, one which can escape the stresses of surface operation and which can maintain a high economic speed."

Nothing New

There's nothing new about any of these ideas. The notion of an Arctic submarine was espoused almost 350 years ago by one of the British Royal Society's founders, Bishop John Wikins. Wilkins propounded on "the possibility of framing an ark for sub-marine navigations . . . safe . . . from ice and great frosts, which do so much endanger the passages towards the Poles."

One of the fathers of the modern submarine was America's Simon Lake. He designed and built submarines for the Russians that they used under-ice off Vladivostok before World War I. And in 1917, he was seriously planning two types of cargo-carrying submarines of 11,000 and 13,000 tons (larger than the present Polaris ballistic missile subs) to navigate across the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins converted a military submarine and tried under-ice experiments in 1931. His aim was "to demonstrate dramatically the fact that submersible vessels may be used for opening up and development of the Hudson Bay district and other northern areas."

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