By Tom Fries - News for March 19 - March 25, 2012
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POLITICS and SECURITY
We note both with joy and sadness that Rolling Stone is discussing the Arctic as a site for future conflict, in its review/interview with writer Michael T. Klare. “Things could get pretty hairy,” says the interviewer. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden published a much more pragmatic and measured take on military activity in the high North in an in-depth comparative piece by Simon Wezeman on the various littoral states’ capabilities, released this week. Next door in Norway, King Harald V was the guest of honour on the British Navy’s HMS Bulwark to observe some of the concluding exercises of Cold Response 2012 (Royal Navy). Writing on the US Marines’ involvement in Cold Response, the Marine Corps Times agreed with Stockholm, pointing out that, despite Russia’s “aggressive grab” (Editor: You mean the flag thing?) for Arctic resources, armed conflict is highly unlikely. To be fair, it does now look as though Russia’s newest sub, the Yury Dolgoruky, will be put into service with the Northern Fleet out of Murmansk, and not the Pacific Fleet as earlier planned (Barents Observer).
Despite the Marines’ participation in Cold Response, the USMC is not the primary portion of the US military engaged in the Arctic, and the Coast Guard continues to discuss when and how to build up its Polar-class icebreaker fleet for the future, a sensitive topic at the moment as both the Polar Star and the Polar Sea are currently out of commission (Navy Times). And indeed, it seems that last year the USCG in its High Latitude Region Mission Analysis requested three “heavy” and three “medium” icebreakers to fulfill what it considers its statutory mission. That seems to be a, how shall I say, “long-term” goal (cgblog.org). It doesn’t seem to be an issue on the corporate side; Shell’s M/V Aiviq is preparing to leave its birthplace which, weirdly, is a shipyard in Louisiana. The ship is being built by Edison Chouest Offshore, also responsible for the Shell-owned Nanuq (Popular Mechanics). Shell may also be considering taking a drillship from Stena into Canada’s Arctic, but nobody seems to have details yet (upstreamonline.com). Rear Admiral David Titley and Robert S. Freeman also wrote this week that the US Navy now considers the Arctic “our first concern” and provided a lengthy discussion of the Navy’s initiatives to deal with the changing North (e-International Relations). NORAD and USNORTHCOM will also play a significant role, as General Charles Jacoby pointed out in his statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 13 March.*
Canada is also in the midst of an existential debate about its hopes and dreams as an Arctic power (Institute of the North), as budgetary concerns caused the Department of National Defence to quietly release news that a planned $100mn upgrade to facilities at Nanisivik in Nunavut would now be slashed (CBC, Nunatsiaq Online), leaving the Nanisivik venue as “a few trailers and a guy with a satellite phone” (National Post). Zing! Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s perspective is, understandably, different (Guelph Mercury), and the Canadian Army’s review of their participation in Cold Response is positive (though predictable), pointing out that practice for NATO cooperation in this environment is valuable (Canadian Army). The Globe and Mail suggests that the United States’ various initiatives to monitor the Arctic should be a wake-up call for Canada...well, maybe: National Defense Magazine seems eager for the USCG to be considering shore bases in the Alaskan Arctic, but if such an idea is under discussion at all for the near future, it is certainly in a roundabout way.
The Economist this week did what it does best by providing a cogent, reasoned and comprehensive overview of the Arctic Council and Arctic governance issues generally. Worth a read, doubtless. In Europe, much news was devoted to Arctic policy jockeying between the various interested parties. The Nordic Council, which met in Iceland (Ice News), urged the development of a joint strategy for collaboration in the Arctic (norden.org), while Norway’s foreign minister Jonas Gahr Store said that Norway, which supports Arctic Council permanent observer status for the EU, had “no choice but to lead” in the Arctic. Store also pointed to a number of successful collaborations with neighbor Russia (European Policy Center, EurActiv). In Sweden, we’re waiting for results from this week’s upcoming meeting of the Arctic Council (Eye on the Arctic), while the EU announced a couple of weeks ago EUR10mn new funding for research into sustainable development in the Arctic (EC). The appropriate role for “outsider” states in the Arctic Council is a current (if slow-moving) debate, and CSIS offered a brief piece on the topic this week as well.
On Russia, Barents Observer provided a great overview of changes in local government in the far North, and Eurasia Review gave us all something new to wring our hands about: unsecured fissile material in Russia’s Arctic. On this subject, in an unpublished portion of an interview with Yuri Sergeev of the Bellona Foundation’s Murmansk office, he told us what seemed like an hilarious story at the time: fissile material used to power lighthouses in the White Sea had been stolen in previous years, seemingly by everyday thieves in small boats, which was what ultimately led to replacement with renewable energy sources for said lighthouses. Perhaps it wasn’t so funny? Writing in the Vancouver Sun, one commentator held up Russia as a model of nation-building through hydrocarbon revenues that Canada would do well to emulate. Seems odd somehow to choose Russia ahead of Norway as a best-practice example, but...as you wish.
On a somber note, it was conclusively determined this week that the group of vanished Norwegian soldiers who disappeared from radar while flying a Hercules transporter over Sweden did indeed crash, with no survivors (Ice News). Five skiers were also killed in an avalanche in Norway (Reuters). Our thoughts and sympathies go out to their friends and families.
ENERGY, MINING and SHIPPING
It’s been a good week for connectivity: the Sakhalin-Khabarovsk-Vladivostok pipeline was commissioned (Pipelines International) which, when completed, will be part of an expanding network helping get Russia’s hydrocarbons to market in the East. Transneft also started work on the Purpe-Zapolyarnye pipeline (Bloomberg), and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which operates the trans-Alaska pipeline, was praised as one of the world’s (!) most ethical companies (Alaska Dispatch). Life isn’t a bed of roses, though: the Mackenzie pipeline is not enjoying a whole lot of support, though Imperial Oil CEO Bruce March would like to think it could still succeed in the near term (Globe and Mail). Mr. March also pointed out that the rapid rush of interest in oil sands and other claims in the North may lead to tight markets for services and, thus, project-threatening inflation (Financial Post).
The debate in Alaska over drilling is a difficult one because of its damned-if-one-does-and-damned-if-one-doesn’t nature, as NPR pointed out this week. The debate in the halls of state government is fascinating to watch, with Alaska’s government deciding whether or not to offer further tax breaks to oil majors in exchange for promises - no written commitments yet - of greater production (thus greater revenues) and greater investment in local communities (Business Week, Alaska Dispatch). This becomes important as the state legislature's season is drawing to a close, and Governor Sean Parnell is pushing the issue (Alaska Dispatch). What impact this might have on smaller companies, and where they may fit into Alaska’s hydrocarbon future, is an interesting and open question (Alaska Dispatch). Whatever activity may take place, it’s certain to come with protest in one form or another, and the Coast Guard is getting ready to protect Shell this summer (Juneau Empire). One can see the concern: already we’ve seen a blowout this month at a well run by Spanish company Repsol (Huffington Post), and the Arctic Council and NOAA are both working on standards for spill response (Fairbanks Daily News, NOAA). It’s also the case that, despite all our technological success, icebergs still present a major problem for ships (BBC). Across the border in Whitehorse, increased interest in new fracking projects is also a source of vociferous debate (Whitehorse Star).
For good value per word, there’s a nice article to turn to in the Boston Globe on the Alaska hydrocarbon boom.
On the other side of the world, everyone seems to be sort of cautiously wishing Cairn Energy well in its continued “faith” in Greenland as an oil destination (sharecast.com), but the web was all aflutter with news of a sudden-ish shift in Russia’s attitude towards foreign oil/gas majors (MarketWatch, Barents Observer) - and indeed, Russia doesn’t have 100% of the necessary expertise to identify and exploit its Arctic hydrocarbons in-house, so such a shift would be logical, if radical. Not two days after this announcement, the European Commission approved Total to take a stake in the Yamal LNG project (UPI), in which three Indian oil majors are also vying to take part (Reuters). Inside Russia, things are less cozy: there seems to be some sort of tiff between Putin and Gazprom over appropriate tax burdens (Reuters). The Shtokman project’s shareholders will be meeting next week to make “final” investment decisions, and the debate over taxation for Gazprom will certainly play a large role in any decisions that are made (Ria Novosti). Russia’s Finance Ministry said that information on the Shtokman project was insufficient for the Ministry itself to take any decisions (Barents Nova). In a different project, some interesting numbers on the Prirazlomnoye project came out this week in a press release from IAGO Limited.
Next door in Norway, Aftenbladet reported that Norwegian oil workers’ salaries are higher than anywhere else in the world (and indeed, these are numbers that make me wish I were some sort of industry-appropriate engineer), and Statoil announced that it would be reopening its offices in Libya, for whatever that might be worth (also Aftenbladet). The company also released word that its Skrugard field might hold 350mn barrels more than was previously thought (Reuters).
The relationship with extractive industries is still a developing issue in the Canadian North (canada.com), and Baffinland has reduced plans for 2012 work on the Mary River project as a result of regulatory decisions (CBC). On the other hand, the construction of a road connecting the Agnico-Eagle gold mine to Rankin Inlet, necessary for year-round work at the mine, has been approved in Nunavut (Nunatsiaq Online). Such projects are always double-edged swords (Nunatsiaq Online). In Europe, Germany’s Welt published a quick but enthusiastic article on the resources available in Greenland, while Finland’s Environment Minister gave a cautious welcome to further mining projects, so long as social responsibility is considered (YLE).
SOCIETY and ECONOMY
In Canada, the relationship between First Nations, the government and industry is a complicated and in many ways uneasy one; this is not news. This week, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver described aboriginal communities as “socially dysfunctional” (Vancouver Sun). How such a message was received I cannot say, but there were several bits of writing this week on, for example, the Yukon government’s conversation with First Nations about centralizing alcohol and drug treatment facilities in the province (Eye on the Arctic) and the Canadian Medical Association’s efforts to include remote Northern communities more effectively in healthcare planning for the nation as a whole (Nunatsiaq Online). Canada’s Health Minister Leona Aglukkag announced federal funds to support tuberculosis research in Nunavut, where the disease remains a chronic problem (CBC), and the Canadian Supreme Court decided that, in essence, aboriginal background constitutes a mitigating factor that should be considered when sentences are decided for criminals (CBC). That is certainly a fraught decision. Also worth reading is this brief, thoughtful letter on the nature of life “north of 60” from an individual who has recently left Yellowknife (Sisters of St. Joseph).
The Canadian Northern Development Agency is trying to tackle this problem, in part, by devoting funds to industry development and industry-appropriate training in Nunavut (Nunatsiaq Online), which seems sensible in light of this feature piece from Alberta Oil on the mutual need for more training on one side and better-trained staff on the other. Minister David Ramsay was again busy this week promoting NWT as a destination for mining investment, in an effort to reverse last year’s disappointing drop in territorial GDP (Northern News Service). His speech is available here.
Deserving of its own separate mention is this thorough and well-written back-and-forth look at the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, taken from the Alaska Dispatch and written by Paul Ongtooguk.
Elsewhere, Norway’s population topped 5 million for the first time (Ice News); not quite as large as New York, but getting there! Paris saw a celebration of the UNESCO Day of Yakutia (Did you know that was going on? I didn’t.) (ITAR-TASS), while Russia debated confiscating foreigners’ property close to the Russia/Finland border (Barents Nova). My guess: this becomes a non-issue. Finland simultaneously opened its “Barents Centre Finland” in Murmansk as a resource for corporate cooperation (Barents Nova). Iceland is working on making cement locally obsolete by developing volcanic ash-based alternatives (Ice News), while Polarnet, Arctic Fibre and Arctic Link are all lining up to begin working on trans-Arctic fibre-optic cables (New Scientist) and Greenland is aggressively pursuing expansion in its tourism industry (Nunatsiaq Online). Languages were of interest this week both on the Alaska side (U. of the Arctic) and in Canada, with the release of a fantastic map of language-group distribution in Canada’s North (NWT Languages Commissioner). Barents Nova also published some interesting info on the population of Murmansk.
The Russian appetite for Norwegian smoked salmon appears insatiable (Barents Observer), and the Joint Russian-Norwegian Fisheries Commission is working on rules for cod and haddock in northern fisheries (thefishsite.com). Norway is simultaneously calling for an EU ban on fish discards at sea, aiming to reduce waste (Guardian), while the EU itself considers sanctions against Iceland and the Faroe Islands for using disallowed technologies in their mackerel fisheries (Ice News). The Marine Stewardship Council is considering the Union of Fishermen of the North’s take of cod and haddock from the Barents and Norwegian seas for eco-certification (fishnewseu.com).
SCIENCE and ENVIRONMENT
It’s hard to know how repetitive news on the warming Arctic gets, so we’ll move through this pretty quickly this week. The Guardian published a clarion-call piece on climate change, while research from NASA (1,2) and the European Space Agency supports the idea that ice is declining rapidly, and research from the Canadian Space Agency is tackling glacier movement in the Canadian Arctic islands, detecting movement as small as 30mm (!!). Barents Observer noted that the temperature on Svalbard has been a full 11C above normal so far in 2012. On the other side of things, the Bering Sea has been fairly choked with ice this year (NASA), the Arctic tree line is advancing, but nowhere near as quickly as thought (Alaska Dispatch), and the Global Historical Climatology Network revised its numbers for earlier years downward, amplifying the scale of change viewed over time (BBC). These last three provided a field day for those convinced that warming trends are being falsified. We also got three interesting pieces from Geophysical Research Letters on the details of ice-pack decrease, the likelihood of a cloudier Arctic with decreased ice cover and the mechanism by which Arctic warming increases extreme weather events at lower latitudes. To tackle these several issues, 32 scientists published a paper in Science crying out for greater global governance (Arctic Portal).
On the good-news side of things, Murmansk is establishing a new national park (Barents Observer), and Canadians have donated $10,000 towards keeping PEARL running...when that isn’t enough, where will the money go (CBC)? The Fram Center in Tromso, Norway is working on spreading the word on Arctic science using social media and their branded “Fram Shorts,” which are indeed kind of great (Barents Observer). We’re happy to help.
There’s some interesting work in a variety of disciplines in Arctic science. People - I cannot tell whom - are getting ready to try to map the aurora borealis in three dimensions (sciencenordic.com). A group from the U. of Swansea in the UK is preparing to do some new research into seismic mapping of sub-glacial terrain (That’s an oversimplification, but the best I can do.) (blog). Greenpeace explored Zhemchug Canyon in the Bering Strait, the world’s largest underwater canyon, and was attacked by squids (HuffPost). To help get further insight into the Arctic’s pre-human history, new drills will be used to take permafrost cores from Svalbard down to a depth of up to 50m (Arctic Portal). On Alaska’s North Slope, drills aren’t needed (Anchorage Daily News).
The annual polar bear census has begun in Yakutia (Voice of Russia), which is cool but not without risks, as researchers have learned through years of adventure in Canada (Edmonton Journal). This year in particular, polar bears have been vandalizing camps on St. Lawrence Island in the midst of the Bering Strait (Alaska Dispatch), and a community in Russia has been dealing with this threat by providing an all-you-can-eat buffet of frozen walrus carcasses well outside of town for the bears to go to (WWF).
Seals and walruses in Alaska and Russia continue to be plagued by mysterious skin lesions (Alaska Dispatch), and there is curiosity around the decline of Alaska’s already-small population of Dall sheep (ca. 1100 at present) (Alaska Dispatch), while new genetic research indicates that an isolated pocket of mammoths on Wrangel Island both (a) lived for several thousand years after all other populations had died out and (b) were likely finished off by hunting or some other external factor, and not by inadequate diversity in their genetic pool (BBC).
In sports, the second-longest dogsled race in the world, which takes place in Norway, is 1000km long and was won in six days this year by a 50 year-old Norwegian woman (Barents Observer). Congratulations! The Polar Olympiad, a medley of winter sporting events, also got underway in Murmansk (Barents Nova).
Now a medley of news impossible to categorize...
There’s heated debate in Yellowknife about the province’s potential exclusion from the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, largely because the Agreement would opens the provincial market for provision of basic public services like drinking water to private European companies.
I don’t believe this is related to the above, but Canada was also reprimanded by the UN for its efforts to excise a specific right to water from outcome documents for the upcoming Rio+20 conference.
Something weird fell from the sky in Siberia. Obviously it ought not to be there - nobody has offered any conclusive suggestions as to what it is (other than “UFO,” which it is clearly not), and it seems to have been quietly ushered out of town.
Check out the energy charge in Nunavut relative to other provinces...
Quick profile of the world’s largest ice hotel in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden.
The University of Montreal inaugurated its virtual museum of Nunavik, while it looks like a museum is in the works in Scotland, to be dedicated to the Arctic convoys that ran during World War II. Richly deserved.
A now-collectable Nunavut license plate brought $200+ on Ebay.
Hallelujah! The first Botox injections in Iqaluit are now available from dentist Steve Partyka. Now that our real problems are solved, we can move on to lesser issues.
Awesome documentary on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Streams for free.
This is a tourist video, but pretty fun to watch. Produced by Greenland’s newly-invigorated tourism office.
It’s tough to believe this is something that is even available, but here is a photo catalogue of the abandoned radar stations of the Arctic circle. Thank you, interwebs.
Love the Northern Lights? So do the folks who took these 66 photographs in Alaska and this amazing one in Iceland..
Awesome photos from Greenland.
Photo of grizzly and polar bear in the same shot. Claims to be the first of its kind.
Entertaining photos of a lark trip for some rich Muscovites who decided to go overland from Yakutsk to Chukotka in expensive SUVs.
Doing some research on Russia’s Arctic? Get some great maps of Sakha-Yakutia for free.
Great photos from a trip on the Lena River.
A series of delightful photos meant to show Arctic animals in love...I certainly can’t tell, but the photos are lovely.
* Our original version of this incorrectly inferred that General Charles Jacoby's statement referred to the role of the United States Air Force, rather than to the role of NORAD and USNORTHCOM.