Why We Aren’t Ready for an Active Arctic

courtesy USCG
By Andreas Østhagen Over the past ten years, increased economic activity in the Arctic has led to a rise in intra-Arctic destinational shipping related to tourism and petroleum exploration. Concerns are growing over the possibility of a major incident in the Arctic’s hostile waters, and yet the governments of Canada and the United States are struggling to empower the coast guards responsible to deal with this new reality in their Arctic territories.

Located far away from the Arctic, both geographically and consciously, federal governments in Washington and Ottawa have been slow to act, preoccupied with what they perceive as the more pressing concerns of voter-rich locations farther south. Nowhere is this more apparent than in emergency preparedness and response. As activity increases in the North, the inherent risks need to be dealt with before there is a major incident which harms the environment, or worse, leads to loss of life.

Building the capacity to deal with emergency situations needs to be high on the North American agenda. By contrast, the European Arctic maritime territories (e.g. Norway, Russia and Iceland) have long been integrated within their national economies, given the countries’ relative Arctic focus related to milder climatic conditions. As a consequence, emergency management capabilities are generally better developed, as activity levels have also been higher in this part of the Arctic.

Tourism and Petroleum Exploration

At the end of August 2012, a private, American-owned yacht called The World, which claims to be the “largest residential yacht on earth,” made its way through the Northwest Passage. The ship had 508 passengers and crew on-board, making it the largest and most populous vessel ever to traverse the Passage; and bigger than some of the communities through which it passed. Although the journey concluded without incident, a grounding would have mounted an enormous challenge to the Canadian Coast Guard’s ability to respond. There are no deep water ports in the Canadian Arctic, the closest air bases for search and rescue are located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Trenton, Ontario, and although it is the ambition of the Coast Guard to provide a capable Arctic presence in the summer months, the lack of equipment and the sheer size of the region pose a constant challenge.

courtesy Constantine Evans
Capacity on the American side is no better. In September 2012, Royal Dutch Shell started drilling its first exploratory well in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska, after years of battling environmental groups and some indigenous populations. Interrupted by technical problems, ice-presence, and local whaling, however, the drilling was ultimately postponed until 2015. With the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico still fresh in memory, the U.S. Coast Guard was present in the area, watchful of potential oil spills. Yet its actual capacity to handle an Arctic oil spill, were it to occur, is limited, and Shell would then be consequently responsiblefor the bulk of the emergency response and clean-up under U.S. law.

Capacity and Presence in the Arctic

The question consequently becomes how to deal with an influx of activity in a remote region where effective emergency management is difficult by nature. Maritime emergency management typically falls under the purview of coast guards, who are tasked with saving lives, enforcing maritime law, and preventing environmental pollution. The Arctic is no different, and yet both the Canadian and U.S. coast guards seem woefully unprepared to take on these responsibilities.

In the 2013 summer season, the United States Coast Guard’s (USCG) icebreaking fleet only consisted of the Healy, a medium-sized icebreaker built for research purposes, and the Polar Star, a newly refitted heavy icebreaker built in 1976. There is also no forward operating base along Alaska’s North Slope, where several drilling projects are either planned or already in operation.

In President Barack Obama’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region (May 2013), no promises of new icebreakers or forwarding bases are mentioned. The same goes for the USCG’s “Arctic Strategy”, which merely states that the U.S. “must have adequate icebreaking capability…” Consequently, the USCG finds itself in a situation where, despite the growing number of tasks and responsibilities in the Arctic, there is no plan to expand capabilities.

Similarly, the Canadian Coast Guard’s (CCG) Arctic capabilities are at a standstill, as the controversial plan to construct a new heavy icebreaker by 2017 – the John G. Diefenbaker – has been delayed. It should be highlighted that even the CCG’s current icebreakers were not initially designed for operations in the denser, multi-year ice of the Arctic, but rather to serve along the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes, and off the coast of Newfoundland.

Additionally, there are on-going debates on whether the CCG or the Navy should be prioritised for Arctic operations. The CCG is a civilian authority under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, while the Royal Canadian Navy is part of the Armed Forces. In 2006, the Harper government promised the CCG three to four new icebreakers, yet the plans shifted and instead the Navy is to receive six to eight Arctic patrol ships. Favouring the Navy is not seen as a move to strengthen Canada’s Arctic presence, as the Navy traditionally has had its focus elsewhere, while Arctic tasks often fall under the prerogative of the CCG. Some have also suggested making the CCG a branch of the Navy, a move that does seem to have either the Arctic or the Coast Guard in mind, as Navy priorities and budget constraints will hinder a much needed shift towards the Arctic.

Mirroring the situation in the U.S., the CCG is struggling with both acquiring the sufficient resources, and reaching the top of the federal government’s priority list. One solution is to increase the sharing of local resources between the two countries, with particular emphasis on the Beaufort Sea. Joint exercises between the U.S. and Canada on search and rescue and oil spill response have already taken place. Yet, for such collaboration to be effective in case of emergency, it needs to be further expanded and formalised. Also, sharing resources does not relieve the governments of their responsibility to provide adequate capabilities in their respective Arctic areas.

Intra-Arctic shipping is likely to continue to expand in North American Arctic territories as rapid economic development takes place along the Arctic coasts and the ice continues to melt. Sadly, governments are more inclined to deal with emergency capability gaps after a major incident, when it has reached the public spotlight. The 1989 Exxon Valdez grounding off the coast of Alaska, or the more recent 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, serve as fitting examples. It is concerning to think we may have to wait for an oil spill or significant loss of life before emergency management is given higher priority amongst Arctic governments.

This piece was first published by the Canadian International Council on OpenCanada.org.