The Arctic This Week - News for April 29 - May 5, 2012




By Tom Fries Arctic News April 28 - May 5

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THE BEST READS THIS WEEK

Thanks for joining us this week! If you’ve only got a few minutes to read, I suggest the following three articles for a longer look.

1. Quick but cool: A “skew-going” icebreaker – that is, one that can go forward, backward and sideways when escorting boats – has never been built before. The first one, a joint Finland-Russia build, is set to be delivered at the end of 2013. According to Naval Today the vessel is “designed for oil spill response and salvage operations.”

2. Each week brings a fresh crop of articles that rehash the basics in one way or another, and one is thus thankful for Michael Byers, who reliably goes deeper into his issues and puts them in their proper historical context. He points out this week in a lengthy but information-rich piece that, in fact, Canada and Russia ought to be considering supporting one another’s positions on the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage.

3. When we talk about the “new” Arctic, much of what we’re talking about is increased connectivity of one kind or another. A creative and well-written article from TAI’s Alison Weisburger covers, briefly, three existent projects to lay trans-Arctic fiber-optic cables, and highlights the ways in which these projects serve as a metaphor for the nature of the changing Arctic as a whole.

BLOOD AND TREASURE

Operation Nunalivut 2012, which took place on Cornwallis and Devon Islands in the Canadian Arctic, concluded on Friday 27 April. As part of that exercise, divers examined and tested portions of an experimental network of underwater sensors – the “Northern Watch Project” – which may one day cover much of Canada’s Arctic (CBC). The project is a partnership between Defence Research and Development Canada and the Department of National Defence. Those portions of the project planned for the Barrow Strait are estimated to cost $10mn between now and 2015 (Globe and Mail). MarketWatchtranscribed the Canadian military’s boilerplate regarding Operation Nunalivut, should you wish to read it.

The Canadian military also discovered this week that it might be looking at a near-doubling of the cost of a satellite system it’s hoping to put in place for Arctic surveillance (OC). Such cost overruns here and elsewhere will make it tough for the country’s armed forces to manage expansion of a sort that Roland Paris, in a cogently written opinion piece via the Canadian International Council, suggests is necessary to secure the country’s massive borders. In my own estimation, Mr. Paris’s best point, though, is buried: Canada “punches above its weight” in building multilateral institutions – this is where human capital instead of simple dollars and machines can make a real difference.

Mia Bennett via Eye on the Arctic pointed up Canada’s advantages over the United States in the defense arena, with a strong focus on the superiority of Canada’s military communications infrastructure in the North. A very similar text from The Republic also highlights the US’s material unpreparedness for extended Arctic operations. Indeed, nothing I’ve read suggests that any country’s forces are incredibly well-prepared with the equipment and training necessary to conduct a large military or search-and-rescue campaign in the Arctic. This post from Navy Times catalogues the different ways in which the US is behind the curve, and the sad story of a search-and-rescue being called off in the neighborhood of Nahanni Butte in the Northwest Territories is a poignant reminder that, even on land, such efforts in the Arctic are no easy matter (EOTA).

When we’re talking about the militarization of the Arctic, people usually point to Russia as the country to watch. When we do that, it’s useful to remember that Russia is not yet bristling with effective weaponry – their newest nuclear submarine in its first test run “had so many flaws that the crew was afraid to sail it,” and its delivery date has been delayed (BO). Russia does press ahead, though, ordering 60 new surface ships and submarines, nationwide, for delivery by 2020 (Naval Today). Next door in the Nordics, some in Sweden have somehow become worried that the country’s defenses are inadequate to meet the threats that it may face in the future (The Local). This week also heralded announcement of the world’s first “skew-going” icebreaker (this apparently means it can go forward, backward and sideways, which is cool) to be Russian-Finnish built and delivered at the end of 2013 (Naval Today). The vessel is “designed for oil spill response and salvage operations.”

When it comes to continued hand-wringing about conflict in the Arctic, this article from the Columbia Political Review, truly, is one of the strangest that I’ve read. It’s not bad, per se, just…weird. Putin is cast as the heir to Byzantine-era rulers…give it a skim and see what you think of it. This piece from Alaska Dispatch takes a slightly more measured tone, but one can still hear the threatening music playing in the background. The report to which the Alaska Dispatch article refers is also summarized here. To see the back-and-forth between the conflict and cooperation camps, skim this review via eenews.com.

Should you be newly interested in this area, or have had an inadvisably festive weekend and need a refresher on the basics, the US State Department kindly provided an overview of things that you’ve probably heard already about greedy companies, climate change, harsh weather and inadequate infrastructure.

THE POLITICAL SCENE

Baroness Catherine Ashton wrote of the EU’s role in the Arctic that a “more coherent, targeted approach” is needed. Ashton also expressed a desire that “as many groups as possible” be involved in discussions of Arctic policy issues. Though inclusiveness is an admirable goal, I weep inwardly at the thought of one more massive multilateral charged with the management of the Arctic, when both knowledge and the situation itself change so very rapidly. It’s not just multilaterals, either. Even at the state level, policymaking can easily come to a standstill, as it has in Alaska, where both the House and Senate adjourned without resolving much in the way of the season’s significant questions (AD).

Thanks are due to Michael Byers for placing current issues in their appropriate historical context. He certainly does so this week in a lengthy but information-rich piece suggesting that Canada and Russia ought to be considering supporting one another’s positions on the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. An equally lengthy but less tidy article with plenty of data but less of a point to make came out of the Bologna Center Journal of International Affairs – if you need a refresher course, it’s a good place to start.

Eurasia Review (warning: their banner ads are for services to match you with charming Russian or Filipino brides) published a temperate and comprehensive overview of China’s interests in the Arctic, and the best way for the world’s most populous country to pursue those interests. Asia Times also published a lengthy article this week on the topic.

In Russia, direct election of regional governors looks as though it will be the new normal as of this summer (BN), and we heard that the parole request of Anton Lebedev, a former oil tycoon accused of money laundering and embezzlement, has been denied (MT, VOR). Neighbor Norway is dramatically expanding its visa services in Russia, offering lots of new locations across the latter country (BN). Norway has also elected to offer Russia an extended deadline to get the paperwork in order for its satellite station on Svalbard, which Norway earlier demanded that it remove (BO).

Lastly, RIA Novosti provides what must be both the unchallenged photo and headline of the week: Church Activists Disperse Pussy Riot Supporters with Holy Water.

ENERGY and EXTRACTIVE INDUSTRIES

It might have been a slow news week, were it not for Greenpeace. Activists seem to have boarded the icebreaker Nordica TWICE: once while it was still docked in Helsinki (EOTA); and then again off the coast of Sweden (Bloomberg). Impressive this time: they seem to have boarded it while it was moving. It’s on its way to Alaska to help Shell out this summer. The protesters were arrested Thursday (Fox News). If you’d like to check out a photo gallery of the action, Greenpeace has thoughtfully provided one.

Other organizations in the US continue to look for boringly legal ways to delay Shell’s drilling efforts off of Alaska (enewspf.com), and a piece in Alaska Dispatch points out that a lot of the discussion of how to manage drilling off of the state’s coast is taking place between people who have no actual connection to that part of the world. Should it really be simply an intellectual exercise? Meanwhile, NOAA issued permits to Shell for “incidental harassment” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Interesting details of what that entails are available in the press release from NOAA. Shell’s not the only one in an unhappy relationship in Alaska; ExxonMobil’s Point Thomson oil & gas project – worth possibly $100bn at today’s prices – is a subject of contentious legal back-and-forth between the company and the state government (EOTA).

In Russia, Lukoil has linked arms with Rosneft after watching foreign competitors ExxonMobil and Eni do the same (RT). The ExxonMobil deal is reviewed comprehensively by ITAR-TASS here. By the end of this week, Lukoil was saying it was “ready to drill,” and word was that Lukoil would offer Rosneft participation in its own projects elsewhere in exchange for access to Rosneft’s Arctic and Black Sea properties (BO). Platts gave a quick update on the collaboration between the two Russian firms, while a solid article from EurActiv offered a review of the recent changes in Russia’s attitude towards Arctic drilling and foreign involvement in its O&G sector.

The Moscow Times wrote up a piece well worth reading on the internal politicking – or lack thereof – between Shtokman partners Gazprom, Total and Statoil. Barents Observer helped to flesh out the picture, mentioning that changes in responsibilities for the different phases of development may also lie ahead. Increases in taxes on Russia’s gas producers – Gazprom and others – were suddenly announced this week as well, to general disapproval and squawking (FT). It’s so strange to read that and then to see exactly the opposite message coming out of Russia Today and Interfax. Reuters meanwhile reports that further tax breaks are in the works for “tight” oil in Russia. I have to admit I’m confused – perhaps Arctic projects are meant to enjoy tax benefits that will not apply elsewhere.

The Trebs oil field (Lukoil-Bashneft) spill that made headlines last week is now closed off, but it doesn’t look like cleanup is going to be fun or easy. The spill covers 40,000 square meters, and the snow that’s absorbed the oil must be removed largely by hand (BO), which sounds like awful work. If you’d like, check out a quick video that purports to show the spill. In spite of these very public failures, production from the Bovanenko gas field on the Yamal peninsula is scheduled to start next month (The Financial).

In Scandinavia, Norway is (as mandated) giving the public the opportunity to comment on its next licensing round (Reuters), while the future of the country’s most northerly offshore gas – LNG or pipeline – is being hashed out by a set of competing corporate, national and regional interests (BO). It will be interesting to see how it turns out. Exploration continues as well: TGS started a 3D seismic survey of 2,400km square of the Barents (Reuters), and Det Norske Veritas took on a small company in Northern Norway to help expand its spill mitigation and risk consulting services (AB). National champion Statoil is meanwhile doing marginally better at recovering available resources, hitting 50% at some wells (Offshore).

Elsewhere, an oil spill (from a tank, not a well) in northern Finland appears to have been underestimated by a factor of 20 (EOTA), and Swedish power looks like it will be significantly cheaper this year than last (EOTA). Meanwhile Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt has argued that an outright ban on Arctic drilling would be “irresponsible” (The Local).

As natural gas prices languish in North America and the Mackenzie pipeline project starves, the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, which would control about 1/3 of the pipeline, has said it’s open to discussions of a liquefaction option to get gas from the Mackenzie delta to reach Asian markets instead (Reuters). The relationship between extractive companies and first nation groups continues to be actively negotiated (Globe & Mail). Meanwhile NWT Minister of Industry David Ramsay said this week at a conference in Houston that the Northwest Territories’ offshore properties, which the federal government is considering for development, “have the oil potential to rival the Gulf of Mexico.” (Note: Really?) Chevron Canada will be at work this summer collecting seismic data to check on that (Upstream). At Fort Liard, also in the NWT, an old BP project that hasn’t been cleaned up yet is leaving a bitter taste in citizens’ mouths (EOTA). Even hydroelectric projects aren’t popular; a recent movie covers a potential linkage between massive bird die-offs in the Canadian North and changes brought about by hydro projects (EOTA).

I’d been wondering in the back of my head why we’d heard nothing about Japan’s engagement with Arctic oil and gas. It seemed illogical. Finally, a tidbit: the US Department of Energy, ConocoPhillips and the Japanese government are collaborating on research to extract gas from methane hydrates in Arctic Alaska (National Journal). There’s much more detail on the project itself available from the Daily Herald, and you can read Secretary Steven Chu’s statement on the project from the Dep’t of Energy website, if you like.

We mentioned last week the possibility that the interest in Murmansk’s port owned by the state would be sold to coal company SUEK; the sale did indeed go through (BN). Also in Murmansk, Norilsk Nickel, world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium, announced a 3% increase in production of nickel from its Polar and Kola divisions over Q1 2011. This year, that means 58,600 tons (steelguru.com). It also looks like the company’s taxes make up about 30% of the Murmansk region’s budget (4-traders).

Next door in Finland, the Talvivaara mine (nickel and cobalt) is facing tough scrutiny because of apparent environmental violations (EOTA). Coupled with earlier speculation that poisonous gasses in the mine caused the death of a worker, the offenses are enough for Finland’s environment minister Ville Niinist√∂ to warn that operations at the mine might be suspended (EOTA).

In Canada, the Nunavut Impact Review Board is getting ready to offer a final review of the Mary River iron project (NN), which means there’s light at the end of the tunnel for the Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. A proposed rail line to serve the project, however, might impact a one-of-a-kind series of inukshuit nearby (EOTA), which is raising eyebrows. In Yukon, people are trying to put as positive a face as possible on a ca. 40% decline in exploration over last year’s figures (EOTA). If you’ve got an interest in mines, it’s worth reading Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s FAQs on mineral tenure in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, which apply to the Mary River project, or some of the few presentations that were recently uploaded from the Nunavut Mining Symposium.

SOCIETY, HEALTH, CONNECTIVITY and EDUCATION

[Connectivity]

A lot of what we’re talking about when we talk about the “new” Arctic is interconnection of one kind or another, and how best to facilitate that. A great article from TAI’s Alison Weisburger covers, briefly, three existent projects to lay trans-Arctic fiber-optic cables, and highlights the ways in which these projects serve as a metaphor for the nature of the changing Arctic as a whole. The Nordic countries are meanwhile shaping up to be central to Northern connectivity by playing host to data centers. Those customers are drawn by the availability of renewable energy and low electricity prices (NYT).

Physical connectivity is also a perpetual challenge, and Yukon’s northernmost community, Old Crow, is asking the federal government for help to build a winter road in (EOTA). Murmansk is also undertaking road improvements; a RUB1.6bn fix-up will start in June (BN). Also in Yukon, the Yukon Energy Corp. is looking at rate increases for the first time since 1999 to cope with aging infrastructure and higher energy consumption (Whitehorse Star). Next door in the Northwest Territories’ capital Yellowknife, power infrastructure took a hit last week when a military helicopter took down some power lines, causing damage estimated at $2.4mn (CBC).

Providing better information for all purposes in Canada’s North is in some part the role of the Canadian Space Agency. President Steve Maclean’s speech at IPY2012 mentioned some of the different projects underway for this purpose, and highlighted the intimate cooperation that must take place between the CSA and, for example, Fisheries & Oceans, or the Dep’t of National Defence.

[Health]

In Alaska and around the Arctic, many health issues are related to problems of food access, as Nick Moe of the Alaska Center for the Environment points out (Inst of the North). Mr. Moe points to estimates that the Alaskan food supply would last no more than three to seven days if shipping ceased, and that less than 5% of the state’s food consumed is produced in-state. It is Canada, however, that has the “dubious distinction of being the first wealthy nation to be probed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.” This is an issue not only for aboriginal communities but for citizens living below the poverty line across Canada (Canada.com). Sometimes scarcity is the issue, but it can also be health; country food can often contain dangerous levels of contaminants (EOTA). It’s not just food, either; water safety is a pervasive issue among aboriginal communities across Canada (Global News). Even more generally, budget cuts to the departments of health and justice are cause for concern (CBC), and the inevitable “modernization” of Inuit society will be a painful process – or so, at least, says Louis Fortier of ArcticNet (OC).

[Education]

Although it seems patronizing to talk about “Inuit society” as something that requires modernization, stronger educational systems will certainly be a critical component of adaptability to the changing the Arctic. Steps are being taken in that direction by the Muskox Program in Igloolik, which focuses on literacy, technology and distance learning (Nunavut Echo), while a program at Nunavut Arctic College works to teach basic Inuktitut to nursing students (Nunavut Echo). There’s also a new version of the Bible in Inuktitut, along with further evidence that there’s just no telling what the Washington Post will or won’t find newsworthy (WaPo). Further South, the community at Queen’s University is working on networking between departments to benefit from one another’s Arctic research (press release). It’s surprisingly tough, breaking down those silos, so I wish them luck.

BUSINESS and INDUSTRY

It was a quiet week in Arctic business and industry, although we did hear that networks of Northern businesses are beginning to appear. A network of Inuit businesswomen in Canada will have its first workshops in Iqaluit this fall (EOTA).

[Shipping]

This very upbeat blog post from Voice of America seems to treat the proposed Bering Sea tunnel as a forehead-smitingly obvious project, which I find difficult to believe considering the many other (politically much more important) projects that are being cut from national budgets the world over. But true: it would change the shipping game, if the tunnel could reliably carry large volumes of freight as well as people. Particularly if it meant that companies didn’t have to spend £16,000 a day for tankers and cargo vessels (tradewinds.com). Shipping: not a cheap business.

[Fisheries]

Russia has embargoed fish cargoes from thirteen Norwegian suppliers, apparently for potential heavy-metal contamination. The move seems to have resulted in confusion more than anything else (fis.com, BN). Russia is hardly all virtue, however, and Alaska’s senators are pressing the president to get tough on Russian “pirate” fisheries (press release). Meanwhile Icelandic technology will soon enable Murmansk fisheries to dry and export leftover bits of cod (heads, spines, tails) to Africa (BN). The world is an amazing place.

SCIENCE, ENVIRONMENT and WILDLIFE

Heartfelt thanks to David Barber, who spent last winter collecting data on weather in open-water sections of the Arctic to demonstrate that, in fact, it’s similar to the stormy Pacific or Atlantic. Thanks as well to Lawson Brigham of the U of Alaska Fairbanks, who goes out on a limb to say that we won’t, in fact, be seeing a significant new trans-polar shipping route in the near future (CBC, via Alaska Dispatch).

Marilyn Heiman, Director of the US Arctic Program at the Pew Environment Group, published a piece calling for several different steps to protect the Arctic environment as exploratory drilling commences (HuffPo). The Norwegian government also published an assessment of the state of the climate, and is putting in place numerous measures to help the country meet its emissions goals by a 2050 deadline (IceNews). A blog from the American Geophysical Union also reinforced the importance of incorporating local knowledge into research in the High North.

As part of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (drilling for research purposes, not oil exploration), an international team of scientists is headed to the Beaufort to study the increase in oceanic methane release by looking at undersea permafrost and gas deposits (Canada.com). There’s concern that the “lid” keeping these deposits in may be fracturing (EOTA), although that fear might be assuaged by this great photo from NASA’s recent IceBridge mission. But let’s not make too much of a big deal out of this – the people who actually did the recent study on oceanic methane release were quite clear that we’re not talking about immediate, dramatic catastrophe.

A couple of weeks ago we mentioned the inauguration of a couple of new nature preserves in the vicinity of Murmansk. Now, in what might be a surprise, it looks like OAO Acron, a significant producer of Russian phosphates, will at least consider re-routing its transit routes to accommodate the new park (Bloomberg). While that’s good news for Russian parks, Canada’s parks system is looking at some really tough hits in the latest rounds of budget cuts – down more than 1,600 jobs (CBC).

Word came out this week in many different news outlets that polar bears have now been documented as extremely long-distance swimmers. The paper under discussion tracked 50 swims via GPS, and came up with an average length of 96 miles (NYT blog, BO). Swims went as long as 10 days, non-stop (Daily Mail). Yikes. And, although the research team very explicitly said that they have no previous data, and thus no way of knowing whether the bears are swimming farther on average now or not (as you will see in the New York Times blog referenced above), the International Polar Foundation pitched it that way. Meanwhile phys.orgmade the important though unsurprising point that raw population numbers of predator or prey species don’t actually tell much in an ocean context; the location of those populations is critical to assessing an ecosystem’s health.

Greenlanders are protesting against a Danish department store’s decision to stop selling all fur products other than those taken as part of food hunting (politiken.dk), while  reindeer herders in Finland are protesting instead at the government’s policies that reduce compensation for depredation by wolves, etc (YLE). For some chuckles involving prey species of, apparently, many kinds, check out this article from Pravda.ru on Russian bear-hunting, not really for the article but for the other headlines along the side, like “Murderous Butcher Albright to Receive Award”.

And, while humans fret and argue, gray whales continue their migration northward through Alaskan waters this week (AD). Narwhal are simultaneously heading southward, or so it would appear from the World Wide Fund for Nature’s narwhal tracker. Note: Don’t miss the delightful video on the process of netting and tagging narwhal. Non-living creatures count, too: an astonishingly complete bison skeleton somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 years old was found in a basement in Whitehorse by a man digging a trench (redorbit.com).

THE GRAB BAG

We learned this week that Mary Simon, long-time president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, will not be running for reelection this year (EOTA).

If you like to geek out on languages, as many of us do, then you’ll enjoy this article from Alaska Dispatch, which points to research connecting one of the least-spoken languages in Siberia with the Athabaskan language family in Canada.

The history of the Arctic convoys that ran from Great Britain to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk during WWII, helping to keep Stalin’s Russia supplied and thus keep Russia as an ally, is one of the most gripping and compelling sub-plots of the tragic history of Europe’s convulsions in the early 40’s. A review of the criteria by which medals are awarded in the UK may result in campaign medals going to some of the ca. 200 remaining survivors (Telegraph, Voice of Russia).

In Finland, also thought of as a hard-drinking nation, spirits are beginning to lose ground to wine (YLE). I bet not this past week, though, as May Day celebrations took place across the country (YLE).

Here is a legitimately fun-to-read overview of Murmansk. Thanks, Barents Observer.

PICS: The Civil Air Search and Rescue Association trains near Iqaluit (CBC).

ABBREVIATION KEY

Aftenbladet (AB)
Alaska Dispatch (AD)
Anchorage Daily News (ADN)
Barents Nova (BN)
Barents Observer (BO)
BusinessWeek (BW)
Eye on the Arctic (EOTA)
Fairbanks News Miner (FNM)
Globe and Mail (G&M)
Moscow Times (MT)
Northern News Service Online (NNSO)
Nunatsiaq News (NN)
Ottawa Citizen (OC)
RIA Novosti (RIAN)
Russia Today (RT)
Voice of Russia (VOR)