Posts Tagged ‘Arctic shipping’

China in the Arctic

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

The Arctic is a tantalizing target for exploitation, even among non-Arctic nations. Not surprisingly, none have greater plans than China, even though its ports are a long way from the Arctic.

The Arctic Council seems to have the power to negotiate how the Arctic will be developed, and China wishes to be included. Voting members of the Council are the circumpolar nations: Canada, US, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark (via Greenland). But twelve other non-polar nations have now received observer status, six of them added at the recent May meeting, and among these are India, Japan, and China. Polar Aboriginal groups also have observer status, but no votes – unfortunate, but also hardly surprising.

China of course has a growing interest in the issues the Arctic Council is discussing. Shipping, for instance. The distance from Europe to China is far shorter through the Arctic Northeast Passage than any alternatives, and there is no threat of piracy en route as there has been around horn of Africa. The Northeast Passage is already open for months each summer, and an enticing seven month season is now likely.

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (

And then the gas and oil. Russia has access to huge natural gas sources close to shore along its central Arctic coast, where it is building new liquid natural gas facilities, along with associated port services. With the Northeast Passage open seven months a year, it need not build pipelines south but instead can fill Chinese tankers directly. China has invested deeply in the operation, intent on getting most of the available LNG.

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (

Meanwhile, in northern Greenland, near Nuuk, China has arranged to develop an extensive iron mine, planning to send about 3000 Chinese miners in to do the work. When the coasts open in summer, it will transport the iron ore to China.

What’s left? Oh yes: fishing. The international waters of the Arctic, the so-called Arctic donut hole, are likely to be a rich and irresistible source of fish. Though that’s 4000 km from Shanghai, China already sends trawlers 7500 km to the Antarctic to fish for krill, so the Arctic is well in range. Its trawlers will be there, as soon as possible.

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (

In late April, the circumpolar nations also met to try to agree on how to protect and regulate the Arctic fisheries. Prohibiting fishing there would be reasonable, for it will take decades, or longer, for the ecosystem to stabilize as it adapts to the prolonged open water, the warmer temperatures, the increasing acidification, the invasion of Subarctic species particularly through the Bering Strait, and the probable loss of some Arctic species.

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (

Will the international community agree wait to start fishing, or to exploit other resources? If so, that will be a first. What will stop them? The words of the recommendations of the Arctic Council read well. But what is the reality going to be?

International interest and pressure to develop the Arctic is immense. China of course is not the only major player – but it is new to this particular region, and it has become insatiable.

The outcome is increasingly clear. Without its ice, the Arctic has few defenses against ‘business-as-usual’ exploitation.

We’ll see what the Arctic Council will do under its new chair, the Canadian Indigenous politician Leona Aglukkaq. A political pragmatist and realist, Aglukkaq endorses the economic development of the Arctic.

China will be pleased.

The Open Arctic

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Everyone is preparing for an Arctic Ocean open for business at least through the summer months.

Seasonal shipping is increasing, and ports are growing, especially along the Russian coast.

The North Pole, April 2004: HMS Tireless, a nuclear sub, measured sea ice thickness of the melting ice cap (

The Arctic rim countries – Canada, Norway, Denmark, Russia and the US – are under some pressure to agree to a moratorium on exploiting the Arctic fisheries at least until enough is known about the ecosystem to do so sustainably.

Beluga whales feed on a school of Arctic cod (the dark streak), a species of potential commercial value but about which we know very little (

The tension over who if anyone owns any of the international waters in the huge center of the Arctic continue to grow, with Russia planning to reopen long closed Soviet bases, Canada considering using drones to monitor the region, and the US getting increasingly nervous about not having a vote in the UN negotiations concerning international boundaries.

The international water of the Arctic Ocean (red lin e)(

Meanwhile China and South Korea are building icebreakers and intend to be players in the search for Arctic fish and other resources.

And then there are the oil companies.

The huge BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 is largely forgotten. Canada, the US and Norway are all inviting oil companies to bid for licenses to explore for oil and natural gas along their Arctic coastlines from Alaska and the Beaufort Sea to the Barents Sea. After a relentless, seven year campaign, Shell begins to drill on the Alaskan North Slope this summer, with Greenpeace watching closely. All the companies are eager to drill in international waters when that becomes possible.

Canada opens the Beaufort Sea for bids for drilling licenses

They are preparing to work in the cold, in darkness, in sea ice a long way from any supportive infrastructure. Still they claim development can be done sustainably.

In fact, nine of the major oil companies, including Statoil, Total, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Shell, have launched a research program where they will assess how spills flow in the Arctic, how to track them remotely, and how to recovery spilled oil. They will do this with ‘controlled’ spills.

Missing from this initiative are the Russian companies, Gazprom and Rosneft. No one seems confident that they will comply with regulations that the others accept. The Gazprom rig that capsized off Sakhalin last December, killing 50, is not reassuring.

Actually, no company is ready for offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, for no proven method for clean-up there exists.

Resistance to drilling has failed. The US sees the Arctic resources as part of its route to energy independence. Norway needs to replace its lucrative but depleted offshore southern oil fields with new northern ones. Canada wants to sell its resources to anyone who will buy them. Russia is Russia.

We hoped the rules of the game might be different in the Arctic as it opens up, based on all that we have learned over the past few decades. In fact they look exactly like they always have: power wins; the idea of endless economic growth remains unchallenged; resources exist to be exploited; environmental concerns are recognized and then largely ignored.

As elsewhere in our modern world, our response has become not to stop it, but at best to try to make it less bad.

At the least, a vigilant and activist press is increasingly critical – reminding us of past initiatives and failures, of the importance of evidence and precaution, and of the fragility and vulnerability of our natural world.

Walruses meet to debate the future of the Arctic Ocean (

Challenges for the Arctic Council

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

In the Arctic, the warming continues, despite the harsh winter of 2011 in much of North America: the extent of winter ice was less than the recent average once again, and the Great Melt continues. So what else is happening?

Arctic ice limits, winter 2011. The orange line represents the average extent of winter ice, 1977-2000. (

Time series of the extent of Arctic ice in 2011, compared with recent years. (

The Arctic Council meets this week at Nuuk, in Greenland, and an 8-nation treaty on search-and-rescue jurisdiction is going to be signed. This is, on one hand, an excellent step forward, as the nations agree who will have responsibility, and where, across the Arctic Ocean. The Globe and Mail has published a draft map of where the international boundaries will lie. Foreign Ministers from all but Canada will be there, including Hillary Clinton. Canada just lost its Foreign Minister in an election, and the health Minister Leona Aglukkaq will represent Canada: a nice little irony, as otherwise no aboriginal voice will be anywhere near the meeting.

A draft map of the international boundaries of jurisdiction for search-and-rescue responsibilities by nations sharing the Arctic Ocean (

On the other hand, almost all the contentious issues remain.

Who has rights to the extensive oil and gas everyone believes lie waiting to be tapped? All the participants signing the current treaty agree the boundaries they have drawn for search-and-rescue jurisdiction have little relationship with boundaries related to exploration and exploitation of gas and oil fields.

Oil companies, including Shell and Cairns, are extend their drilling in the Arctic, and you would think the memories of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention the lessons learned, would ensure the best safety measures would be in place. They aren’t. The risks appear to be even greater. There will be spills in the Arctic Ocean, the pollution could be devastating, and there is little serious preparation in the works.

Who owns the shipping lanes? Does Canada own most of the Northwest Passage, and Russia almost all of the Northeast Passage? Canada and Russia assume so, but probably no one else does. China, South Korea and Japan all want a voice in such decisions, and are clamouring for at least observer status at Arctic Council meetings.

Fishing rights are barely on the table, yet the Arctic marine ecosystem is going to shift with the warming and the loss of ice. The moratorium of federal fishing in the US sector is helpful, and Canada appears to be about to do the same for the Beaufort Sea, but no international agreements yet exist.

The US has established a moratorium of ishing in Alaskan Arctic waters. (

The status of the US voice in all of this also remains ambiguous, for the US still has not ratified the UN Law of the Sea even though almost every other nation in the world has done so. Even the US military now wants that treaty ratified by the US, but fear of right wing criticism of anything related to the UN and to international treaties continues to prevent congressional action.

And what of the impact of the melting of the permafrost, the rising sea, and the other radical changes associated with the warming climate? What of the impending economic development of the Arctic? What of the Inuit communities ringing the Arctic? The absence of aboriginal representation raises familiar and disturbing questions.

Inuit cultures will soon be lost. Does it matter? (

So a little celebration could be called for – treaties like this are rare. But it is a very small step, and time is short.