Tag Archives: Arctic oil drilling

Fish, Gas and Minerals: the Arctic

Mr Xi has been showing a growing interest in Arctic countries. In 2014 he revealed in a speech that China itself wanted to become a “polar great power”..,,In January 2018 the Chinese government published its first policy document outlining its Arctic strategy.

China is also keen to tap into the Arctic resources that will become easier to exploit as the ice cap retreats. They include fish, minerals, oil and gas. The region could hold a quarter of the world’s as-yet-undiscovered hydrocarbons, according to the United States Geological Survey. Chinese firms are interested in mining zinc, uranium and rare earths in Greenland.

As the ice melts, it may become more feasible for cargo ships to sail through Arctic waters. China is excited by this possibility (its media speak of an “ice silk road”). In the coming decades such routes could cut several thousand kilometres off journeys between Shanghai and Europe. Sending ships through the Arctic could also help to revive port cities in China’s north-eastern rustbelt… China is thinking of building ports and other infrastructure in the Arctic to facilitate shipping. State-linked firms in China talk of building an Arctic railway across Finland.

Chinese analysts believe that using Arctic routes would help China strategically, too. It could reduce the need to ship goods through the Malacca Strait, a choke-point connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. Much of China’s global shipping passes through the strait. It worries endlessly about the strait’s vulnerability to blockade—for example, should war break out with America.

There are no heated territorial disputes in the Arctic, but there are sensitivities, including Canada’s claim to the North-West Passage, a trans-Arctic waterway that America regards as international—ie, belonging to no single state.

Plenty of non-Arctic countries, including European ones, have similar dreams. But China is “by far the outlier” in terms of the amount of money it has pledged or already poured into the region, says Marc Lanteigne of Massey University in New Zealand. Its biggest investments have been in Russia, including a gas plant that began operating in Siberia in December 2017. Russia was once deeply cynical about China’s intentions. But since the crisis in Ukraine it has had to look east for investment in its Arctic regions.

The interest shown by Chinese firms could be good news for many Arctic communities. Few other investors have shown themselves willing to stomach the high costs and slow pay-offs involved in developing the far north…. The main concern of Arctic countries is that China’s ambitions will result in a gradual rewiring of the region’s politics in ways that give China more influence in determining how the Arctic is managed. Greenland is a place to watch. Political elites there favour independence from Denmark but resist taking the plunge because the island’s economy is so dependent on Danish support. The prospect of Chinese investment could change that. Should Greenland become independent, China could use its clout there to help further its own interests at meetings of Arctic states, in the same way that it uses its influence over Cambodia and Laos to prevent the Association of South-East Asian Nations from criticising Chinese behaviour in their neighbourhood.

Excerpts from The Arctic: A Silk Road through Ice, Economist, Apr. 14, 2018, at 37

The Arctic through China’s Eyes

China on  January 25, 2018 outlined its ambitions to extend President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming.  Releasing its first official Arctic policy white paper, China said it would encourage enterprises to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages, paving the way for Arctic shipping routes that would form a “Polar Silk Road”…China, despite being a non-Arctic state, is increasingly active in the polar region and became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013.

Among its increasing interests in the region is its major stake in Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas project which is expected to supply China with four million tonnes of LNG a year.

Shipping through the Northern Sea Route would shave almost 20 days off the regular time using the traditional route through the Suez Canal. COSCO Shipping has also previously sailed vessels through the Arctic’s northeast passage.

China’s increasing prominence in the region has prompted concerns from Arctic states over its long-term strategic objectives, including possible military deployment…The white paper said China also eyes development of oil, gas, mineral resources and other non-fossil energies, fishing and tourism in the region. China’s Belt and Road initiative aims to connect China to Europe, the Middle East and beyond via massive infrastructure projects across dozens of countries…

Excerpts from China unveils vision for ‘Polar Silk Road’ across Arctic, Reuters, Jan. 25, 2018

Arctic Oil Spills are Not Preventable

Alaska oil drilling. Image from wikipedia

The Arctic Council Oil Spill Task Force, jointly led by the US, Norway and Russia, has finalized its work with drafting an agreement on oil pollution incidents in Arctic waters.  The agreement is to be presented and signed during the upcoming Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in May. The agreement comes as a result of a decision made by ministers of the 8 Arctic Countries at their previous meeting, i.e., in May 2011 in Nuuk, Greenland, to develop an international instrument on Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response.

The agreement will cover Arctic marine areas of the 8 Arctic Countries and apply to all kind of possible pollution sources, oilrigs and ships, except ships operated by a state such as naval vessels. The oil spill agreement will stipulate that each Arctic country must have a system in place that takes into account activities or places that are particularly likely to give rise to or suffer from incidents as well as areas of special ecological significance. Among other things, the agreement will contain rules for notifying about, monitoring, and assisting in responses to oil pollution incidents. It also will have stipulations regarding information exchange, the carrying out of joint exercises and training, and meetings of the parties to the agreement.

While advocating a moratorium on Arctic marine oil and gas extraction, environmentalist groups that have been following the preparation of the agreement text are welcoming it as a step forward in fighting oil spills. According to environmentalists, given that resource exploration and extraction in Arctic waters is increasing, oil spill incidents will inevitably happen. These groups also praises the fact that the agreement will recognize the role of indigenous peoples and other Arctic residents in supporting oil spill preparedness and response. Yet, at the same time, they criticize the agreement for not facilitating the use of privately owned – i.e., by oil companies – response equipment. NGOs furthermore point out that while the agreement goes a good long way to maintain and harmonize national procedures, it fails to commit its parties to actually raise their preparedness and response standards.

From the website of Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat

The Arctic Challenger: who is ready for an Arctic oil spill

Shell Oil has been building and testing equipment designed for the Arctic Ocean in Puget Sound, Seattle, United States.  In September, a key test of underwater oil-spill equipment was a spectacular failure.  It forced the energy giant to postpone drilling into oil-bearing rocks beneath the Arctic Ocean until next summer. Shell and its federal regulators have been tight-lipped about the failed test.  But a freedom-of-information request reveals what happened beneath the surface of Puget Sound.

Before Shell can drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, it needs to prove to federal officials that it can clean up a massive oil spill there. That proof hinges on a barge being built in Bellingham called the Arctic Challenger.  The barge is only one component of Shell’s plans for handling oil spills off the remote north coast of Alaska. But the Obama Administration won’t let oil drilling get under way until the 36-year-old barge and its brand new oil-spill equipment are in place,  On board the Arctic Challenger is a massive steel “containment dome.” It’s a sort of giant underwater vacuum cleaner. If efforts to cap a blown-out well don’t work, the dome can capture spewing oil and funnel it to a tanker on the surface.

The Arctic Challenger passed several US Coast Guard tests for seaworthiness in September. But it was a different story when its oil-spill containment system was put to the test in 150-foot-deep water near Anacortes, Washington.  The federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement required the test of the oil-spill system.

According to BSEE internal emails obtained by KUOW, the containment dome test was supposed to take about a day. That estimate proved to be wildly optimistic.

•Day 1: The Arctic Challenger’s massive steel dome comes unhooked from some of the winches used to maneuver it underwater. The crew has to recover it and repair it.

•Day 2: A remote-controlled submarine gets tangled in some anchor lines. It takes divers about 24 hours to rescue the submarine.

•Day 5: The test has its worst accident. On that dead-calm Friday night, Mark Fesmire, the head of BSEE’s Alaska office, is on board the Challenger. He’s watching the underwater video feed from the remote-control submarine when, a little after midnight, the video screen suddenly fills with bubbles. The 20-foot-tall containment dome then shoots to the surface. The massive white dome “breached like a whale,” Fesmire e-mails a colleague at BSEE headquarters.

Then the dome sinks more than 120 feet. A safety buoy, basically a giant balloon, catches it before it hits bottom. About 12 hours later, the crew of the Challenger manages to get the dome back to the surface. “As bad as I thought,” Fesmire writes his BSEE colleague. “Basically the top half is crushed like a beer can.”

Representatives of Shell Oil and of BSEE declined to answer questions or allow interviews about the mishaps. In an email, Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh writes:  Our internal investigation determined the Arctic Challenger’s dome was damaged when it descended too quickly due to a faulty electrical connection, which improperly opened a valve. While safety systems ensured it did not hit the bottom, buoyancy chambers were damaged from the sudden pressure change.

Environmental groups say the Arctic Challenger’s multiple problems show that Shell isn’t prepared for an Arctic oil spill.

Excerpt, By John Ryan, Sea Trial Leaves Shell’s Arctic Oil-Spill Gear “Crushed Like A Beer Can”, Kuow.org. Nov. 30, 2012

The New Economic Appropriations of the Arctic: great powers versus the newcomers

China, Brazil and India want seats on the Arctic Council as global warming creates new opportunities for shipping and resource extraction in the vast Arctic region. There are concerns this is the beginning of a 21st century “scramble for the Arctic”, but rather than staking territorial claims, non- Arctic countries want to exert economic and political influence in the region.  China already has a research station in Norway’s high Arctic and is building an 8,000-tonne icebreaker.

Canada has a great opportunity to become an influential Arctic power, and to ensure the resource-rich but fragile region doesn’t become a “Wild West” where the views of indigenous and other longstanding residents are ignored, said Tony Penikett, former premier of the Yukon, one of Canada’s three Arctic territories.  In 2013, Canada will chair the Arctic Council, a highly influential governmental forum originally created to promote international cooperation in the North. The council faces major issues such as expanded membership, increases in trans-Arctic shipping, resource extraction, and environmental protection of the fragile region already hard hit by climate change.  The council is unique amongst international bodies by including six Arctic indigenous groups as permanent members along with eight countries with Arctic territories: Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark (Greenland). However, only these countries have a vote. There are also six non-Arctic nations that sit in as observers today: the Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands.  Disputes between Arctic nations are rare and the Council serves an important platform for discussion. Russia and Norway concluded a boundary treaty for the Barents Sea in 2010. Other territorial disputes, such as between Russia, Denmark and Canada over rights to parts of the Lomonosov Ridge, are being sorted out under the Law of the Sea Convention.

“However, the Council is struggling with the issue of addition of other non-Arctic nations,” Penikett told IPS.  The European Union, other European nations, Japan and South Korea have indicated they want observer status as well. “To remain relevant does the Council give other nations a larger role or remain an exclusive club?” he asked.

Russia and Canada have strongly opposed expansion. Indigenous groups also oppose it, fearing their influence and voice will be diluted, said Penikett, who will be a keynote speaker at the second annual Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Conference this week at the University of Toronto.  The conference theme is “The Arctic Council: Its place in the future of Arctic governance,” and will include policymakers and academics from all circumpolar states.

“Expansion would give the council a much stronger voice,” said Michael Byers, a professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.  Having a larger, more influential membership would bring more public attention to the region, Byers said in an interview. “Excluding other countries who have legitimate interests [?] will simply create friction,” he said.

Last summer, the Russian-owned Vladimir Tikhonov became the first supertanker ever to navigate the 5,500-kilometre Northeast Passage. Also known as the Russian Northern Sea Route, it cuts thousands of kilometres off the distance between Europe and Asia compared to going through the Panama Canal.  Arctic waters will remain extremely dangerous for a long time. Last month a huge floating Russian oil drilling rig sank in a storm, killing 53 workers. Fortunately, it was being towed back to port at the time and no oil was spilled.

The Arctic Council has pioneered a new circumpolar search and rescue cooperation agreement, but it has not dealt with oil spill response or even considered environmental safety standards for oil and gas drilling, said Sara French, Arctic security researcher at the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, a NGO with focus on the Arctic and water.  There have been some preliminary discussions about oil spills but nothing about safety standards for Arctic drilling, French told IPS.

“The Inuit Circumpolar Council has brought up the issue and they do want a common set of rules to protect the environment,” she said.  As chair, Canada could demonstrate its leadership on Arctic issues, including strengthening the voice of the indigenous people, she said.  Canada could be a leader – but it won’t under the Harper government, predicted Byers.  “Climate change and its consequences are the overriding issue in the Arctic,” he said.

Under the Harper government, Canada has been a “rogue state” at international climate meetings and its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to reduce carbon emissions causing climate change. Instead of reducing those emissions by six percent as agreed in the treaty, Canada’s emissions soared 24 percent. Last month, as reported by IPS, the Harper government pulled out of Kyoto.  “Canada is seen to have a retrograde position on climate change. That will make it challenging to be an effective leader on the Council,” said Byers.

Being chair of the Council could be good opportunity for Canada, he acknowledged. “However, I am worried that the current government will squander this opportunity.”

By Stephen Leahy, Melting Ice Makes Arctic Access a Hot Commodity, IPS, Jan. 16, 2012