By Tom Fries - News for April 1 -7, 2012
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If you’ve only got a few minutes, these articles give the best ROI.
Whitney Lackenbauer writes, in this excellent article in iPolitics.ca, on the reasons to keep security issues out of the Arctic Council’s mandate. It’s both well-reasoned and well-written.
Reuters explains the challenges of the Russian tax system for hydrocarbon projects.
Alaska Dispatch offers a critical window on the complexity of making decisions in the Arctic; fisheries vs mining, state vs federal government, gray areas everywhere...
Sauli Niinistö gave a thoughtful, thorough speech on Finland’s role in the Arctic.
BLOOD AND TREASURE
Some folks are making hay out of the test flight of a B-2 long range bomber from Edwards Air Force Base in California to the North Pole and back (defpro.com), while Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Vice Premier with responsibility for defense, announced that in its thirty-year plan Russia has included delivery of multi-purpose “modular” ships. He said as well that military strength in the Arctic is a key bulwark against NATO (navaltoday.com). That military strength is set to be bolstered by the non-nuclear submarine St. Petersburg, which will be doing trial runs in the Barents and White seas this year (navaltoday.com), and by the country’s move towards a procurement system “reformed” on the Soviet model (navaltoday.com). Russia also has some perhaps unusual military company in the Barents; India owns a carrier - the INS Vikramaditya - which is getting ready for sea trials there (UPI). The Russian Council this week also published a overlong article on India’s interests in the Arctic, which I recommend only if the subject interests you particularly.
All of the above seems to get of people’s hackles up, but it does not, alone, provide a very complete picture. We also heard this week that the Russian border patrol signed a cooperation agreement for monitoring of the Bering Strait with the United States Coast Guard (KTUU). The week prior, the NATO-Russia Council conducted tabletop exercises to practice response to a theoretical cruise-ship hijacking in the Arctic (NATO). Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov and Norwegian Defense Minister Espen Barth Eide met in Oslo to hammer out plans for better cooperation, pointing out that the two countries’ militaries will conduct 24 joint exercises in the next 12 months (defensenews.com). Perhaps most importantly, news broke that all eight Arctic Chiefs of Defense (with the exception of Gen. Martin Dempsey of the United States; the US will instead be represented by General Charles Jacoby, head of NORAD and USNORTHCOM) will be meeting in Goose Bay, Labrador for discussions on “Arctic search-and-rescue operations, northern environmental challenges, military-aboriginal relations and a range of other issues” (Ottawa Citizen).
Although Canada’s hospitality to its military colleagues is clearly undiminished, and although Canadian forces continue to train for Arctic conditions in Labrador (Canadian Army), cuts to Canada’s military continue, including closing of a recruitment center in Yellowknife (Vancouver Sun). Mia Bennett also offered a good post on the downgrading of the Nanisivik facillity in Eye on the Arctic. Nonetheless, Operation Nunalivut, which is an annual cross-service exercise in Canada’s North, is set to take place in the next couple of weeks near Resolute Bay (canadacom). Mary Simon of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, whose blog posts are always well-written, says “remember that Arctic search-and-rescue and military capability are not the foundation of a defensible Canadian Arctic sovereignty claim. Vibrant, sustainable, Arctic communities, with healthy, educated people living in them are.”
On the US side, the “Arctic Wolves” from Fort Wainwright, Alaska were welcomed home from Afghanistan (DVIDS, gulflive.com), and - much further South on the West Coast - the brand-new Coast Guard cutter Stratton, on its way to the Bering, was christened in San Francisco Bay by Michelle Obama (San Ramon Patch).
Finally, if you’re enjoying wringing your hands over Arctic war, you can check out this from Reuters, this from Scientific American (to be fair, it covers many other regions as well) and this from commondreams.org. You’ll also be thrilled to see that we can start trainin’ ‘em young for their future careers as Arctic warriors (gamasutra.com)!
THE POLITICAL SCENE
In around-the-circle politics, Whitney Lackenbauer of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute offered a thoughtful piece this week on the possible expansion of the Arctic Council’s mandate to include security issues (ipolitics.ca), while Eye on the Arctic cross-posted some good content from Radio Sweden on the internal debate that has accompanied Sweden’s leadership of the Arctic Council.
The big news in Canada continues to be over the new federal budget and its impacts. Those details pertinent to indigenous communities in Canada received a detailed critique from Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett. There were other storms brewing this week as well, though. There’s stirring about whether Canadian not-for-profits can take foreign money, including some very particular grumbling about the partnership between Oceans North and the Pew Environment Group (oceansnorth.org). Even a senator from Nunavut is expressing concern about the issue (CBC). Josh Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, responded with a heartfelt defense in a letter to the editor of Nunatsiaq News.* In addition, a proposal to overhaul the Northwest Territories’ systems for land use regulation is meeting with strong resistance. The full paper is here.
In the US, this week saw a nice overview and commentary on the SIPRI report from Will Rogers at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. He also pointed out that UNCLOS ratification will be key to protecting US maritime interests. Also in general news, the Diplomat published a sneaky blog post that is entitled “US to Get New Icebreaker.” I was so excited, but the post includes absolutely no new evidence to suggest that such an acquisition is a foregone conclusion. They’re apparently talking about the $8mn included in the 2013 budget that Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) earlier said wasn’t even enough to buy a porthole. In other national news, Congressman Don Young and a whole slew of other people seem to have had a fairly one-sided panel criticizing the federal government’s new Oceans policy (Alaska Public Radio). Listening to the story, it seems like it is a well-worn debate: should Alaska’s coastal waters be covered by federal (or federal-ish) bodies, or by state bodies? And there is the business-vs-government undertone of course as well. Alaska is looking at redistricting for its state legislature (Fairbanks News Miner), and Alaska’s citizens might soon be looking at greater limitations on their judicial recourse against large-scale extractive projects (Eye on the Arctic).
We haven’t pointed to TIME magazine before as a source, but this week they had a good article on the relationship between Russia’s subsoil wealth and Putin’s political success. Without a doubt, the best eight words in the article are: “a species of giant weasel called a wolverine.” Indeed the relationship between extractive companies and government is cozy in Russia, as it is elsewhere. Murmansk governor Dmitriyenko was finally relieved of his post (Moscow Times), and replaced by Marina Kovtun who, though an official in Murmansk, is also deputy director of one of Norilsk Nickel’s daughter companies (Barents Nova). Partially in an effort to increase the productivity of Ms Kovtun’s new fiefdom, the Russian government has announced $44bn of spending between now and 2020 to be devoted to making the Russian Arctic a more livable and functional region (RIA Novosti). Perhaps this is in anticipation of moving parts of Moscow to Siberia, a plan one politician suggested (Russia Today). One such initiative is the opening of ten new search-and-rescue centers along the Northern Sea Route (marinelink.com).
Next door, Scandinavia and Europe are getting plenty of attention for a wide variety reasons. First and foremost, we got a great speech from Sauli Niinistö on Finland’s Arctic future (tpk.fi). That country’s Saami parliament is getting ready for its new term (Eye on the Arctic) while, next door, the Swedish defense minister resigned for what seems like a grab-bag of reasons (IceNews). Pundit extraordinaire Fareed Zakaria cited comparatively tiny Denmark’s rejection of China’s Arctic advances as evidence that China will need to learn to play nicer even with smaller children (CNN blog), and the Russian Council covered the EU’s Arctic interests at some length. Lastly, Mia Bennett tells us that the entertaining notion that Iceland might adopt the Canadian dollar seems to have withered on the vine (Eye on the Arctic).
ENERGY AND MINING
It’s always fascinating to read about renewable energy in the Arctic, as it’s such a tough environment for most things. We heard that Sweden has successfully been running some trucks on biofuel made from waste from the lumber industry (Eye on the Arctic) - Waste not, want not! - and that there is a wind farm on the move near Anchorage (Alaska Dispatch). In Nunavik, it looks like the park-vs-hydropower debate is still going on, and the park might be winning for the moment (Nunatsiaq Online). On the oil-&-gas side of things, here’s a clear, succinct, well-done interview with Danila Bochkarev of the East-West Institute on Arctic oil & gas (Polar Foundation).
In Russian oil and gas, I recommend that - if you haven’t already done so - you register (free & worth it) for the Financial Times to read a good letter from Tim Reilly of the Arctic Advisors Group regarding a “shake-up” in the Russian Arctic hydrocarbon sector. Part of the motion there will be adjustments to tax regimes, of course - here is a clear read on that issue from Reuters. In a broad sense, the federal government appears at the moment to be focused on protecting gas prices rather than going for greater market share (naturalgaseurope.com), which we can see in the efforts of Novatek and Gazprom to balance natural gas output (Bloomberg). Nevertheless, Gazprom promises to up its output this coming winter (Reuters).
Shtokman continues to be a cash cow for the press, if not for anyone else. We heard Putin offer reassurances on the eventual inevitability of favorable taxes for the project (gcaptain) - necessary if gas prices stay low with other projects coming online elsewhere in the world - and also that a strategic shift from piped gas to LNG is in the works (Reuters), necessary for Shtokman to access a greater variety of markets. Reuters seemed to hint that Jeremy Huck of BP Russia, which partners with Russian firms elsewhere, was forced out this week and replaced by Richard Sloan. Maybe that’s what happened, but I could also see Mr. Huck just throwing his hands up and making for the exits - BP hasn’t always had the easiest time there.
Norway’s frontier licensing round is coming up, with a big focus on its Arctic properties. Of 86 licenses, 72 are in the Barents (Reuters). Meanwhile the Dreki area between Iceland and Jan Mayen has drawn reasonable interest, with license offers from Eykon, Faroe and Valiant (Arctic Portal). Despite all this, the Elgin platform, which, to be fair, is not in the Arctic proper, continues to leak, and Greenpeace is calling for a total ban on Arctic drilling (Democracy Now, Aftenbladet).
There was feverish praise for ships new and yet to be built: North Atlantic Drilling Ltd (majority-owned by Seadrill of Norway) announced that it has signed a contract for a $650 mn Arctic-ready drilling rig from a shipyard in Singapore (gcaptain). The winner of the contract, Sembcorp marine, is the world’s second-largest rig builder. The Scarabeo 8 - a massive rig ruined by fire in Palermo in 2010 - has now been rebuilt, and it was christened in Norway this week (Aftenbladet). It’s slated for five years serving Eni in the Goliat field in the Barents. Another Norwegian firm (TGS) is ready to begin seismic surveying of the Barents using a new 3D seismic ship, Polar Duchess, from Dolphin Geophysical (upstreamonline). The Polar Duchess is owned by Banco Santander (fact sheet). If you’d like to learn a little more about what to look for in drillships, this piece from gcaptain.com covers Stena’s new Drillmax ships, designed for the Barents and Norwegian seas, which in theory can drill in up to 6.7-meter seas and remain connected to blowout preventers in up to 11-meter seas.
The United States’ Government Accountability Office’s report on Arctic drilling - and the weaknesses in Shell’s plans for it - was big news last week. This week saw analysis of precisely that from Juneau Empire, Reuters and Oil & Gas Technology, all selecting the same points. Simultaneously, Shell signed a memorandum of understanding with NOAA on data-sharing. I’m a little bit surprised to see the VP’s statement that more data is needed before actual production is undertaken.
In Canada, the biggest news of the week was the expected delay of the MacKenzie pipeline (Eye on the Arctic) and the associated office closings in Norman Wells, Fort Simpson and Inuvik (Reuters). Clearly that project is on the back, back, back burner now. Meanwhile the Yukon Government appears to have planned to pitch in for the Alaska Highway Pipeline Project, which is also not going well. There’s some squawking about why federal funds were/are suggested for the project (Yukon gov’t, CBC).
Plenty of news of Canada’s minerals this week, though much of it isn’t sunny. There was a generally pessimistic overview of prospects for mining in Nunavut (yahoo finance), though it looks as though the idea of a port and road for Bathurst Inlet near Cambridge Bay to open up the territory for mineral production has been revived (Eye on the Arctic). Premier Bob McLeod tried to put a positive spin on the diamond industry in the Northwest Territories (NWT gov’t), while Minister David Ramsay added his two cents, discussing the relationship between the Northwest Territorities’ minerals future and indigenous groups (NWT gov’t). Similarly, there’s discussion of how Quebec’s Plan Nord and Xstrata can work to create a long-lived skills training program for Inuit workers interested in working at the Raglan mine (Nunatsiaq Online). One might reasonably be surprised to learn that there is still small-scale mining going on all over the Yukon, including in supposedly residential areas...4,638 new claims since January (Whitehorse Star)? Once the backyards of Canada’s citizens have been despoiled of their vast riches, perhaps subsea mining is the next step (NPR).
Canadian company Silver Bear reported good results in its search for silver in its Russian license areas in Yakutia particularly (MarketWatch). Further exploration planned for 2012. Also in Russia, we learned some interesting things about Norilsk Nickel. It’s doubtless tough to work in a Russian mine north of the Arctic circle, and the company will be spending RUB1.6bn to subsidize its employees’ participation in recreational programs (Steel Guru), as well as investing RUB1.4bn (down from 5bn in 2011) in a program that buys nice apartments near Moscow and Krasnodar as perks for highly skilled employees (Steel Guru). Other Russian mining companies are making good progress: OAO Acron’s Oleny Ruchey phosphate-processing plant in Murmansk should get up to speed this year (Barents Nova, Bloomberg), and Polyus Gold, Russia’s largest gold producer, had a good 2011 with profits up 57% over 2010 (RIA Novosti).
In a fascinating glimpse at how industries and government departments can fight one another, fisheries in Bristol Bay, Alaska, are coalescing around their disapproval of the Northern Dynasty / Anglo American Pebble mine (gold, molybdenum, copper) in Bristol Bay, siding with either state regulators or the EPA (Alaska Dispatch).
SOCIETY and ECONOMY
It look as though aboriginal communities are beginning to suffer more from waterborne illnesses as a result of warming rivers that run longer (NatGeo). Individuals from those communities do not enjoy the advantages of First Nations status without a father’s signature on their birth certificates (Winnipeg Free Press). It’s tough to know what the best solution for that problem is. Tourism focused on indigenous peoples is an important industry for the North, and efforts to develop a thriving industry are underway (Northern News Service). If you’d like an interesting peek behind the curtain of such tourism, check out this post from ecotourism.org. Meanwhile Statistics Canada is preparing for its 2012 education and employment survey of those indigenous people who live off-reserve, and it looks like it’s not especially effective to use television sets as drug mules for shipments of weed to Nunavut (Nunatsiaq Online).
The CBC announced it’s cutting jobs, which is sad but not unexpected, and the University of the Arctic has agreed formally to cooperate with those indigenous organizations that are members of the Arctic Council. What the details of that cooperation might be, I was unable to discern.
Physical and electronic connections in the high North are a serious issue, evidenced by the fact that the Royal Canadian Air Force was the best solution for delivery of a needed forklift to Salluit, Quebec (RCAF). In addition, basic medical care often has to be flown in to remote communities in Alaska, as does everything else (Alaska Dispatch). People will, however, soon be able to use commercial airlines to cross the Bering Strait, as Yakutia Air plans to begin offering direct flights between Anchorage and Petropavlovsk starting in July (U of Alaska Fairbanks).
A tragic plane crash outside of Tyumen this week killed 31, including a number of higher-ups from Surgutneftegaz (WSJ, Bloomberg). Our thoughts go out to the families and friends of those who lost their lives.
With a gradual increase in activity and population in the Arctic, Canada has had opportunities to learn that increased cellular coverage is a must. Telesat has pitched an ambitious plan to take care of that (Ottawa Business Journal). Nobody who’s been there will be surprised to hear that the Scandinavian countries are, in contrast, at the top of the heap in terms of electronic connectivity (YLE). Across the border in Russia, Murmansk will soon play host to a GLONASS (Russian GPS) center to help monitor and track vehicles and ships (Barents Nova), and the Centre for High North Logistics and Rosatomflot have opened an office of the Arctic Logistics Information office there to help manage Northern Sea Route traffic (Barents Nova). In Canada, the three territories have partnered up to lobby for greater infrastructure support from Ottawa (Gov’t of NWT).
Next door in Alaska, Senator Begich is beginning to push the idea of a deepwater port in northern Alaska (Alaska Dispatch). Probably a good idea, but who pays? It’s also possible that Alaska’s spring breakup will be especially brutal this year (Alaska Dispatch). [Editor’s note: There’s a reference in the article to the town of Eagle being essentially wiped out in 2009, 33 years after John McPhee profiled it at great length in his book Coming Into the Country, which I highly recommend.] Also figuring prominently into life in Alaska are native corporations, one of the largest of which (Bering Straits Native Corporation) recently announced a special dividend payout (Alaska Dispatch). Even “regular” Alaskans receive annual dividends from the Permanent Fund, but there’s a small issue: the law around those payouts doesn’t take into account the idea that military Alaskans might be stationed abroad for more than 10 years, after which point their official residency legally ceases (Alaska Dispatch).
On the business side of things, there are jobs available at the Norwegian consulate in Murmansk, if that is your speed (Barents Nova), and the business community of Murmansk will be linking up with the Moscow-based AEB, a network of European businesses in Russia (Barents Nova). The most lighthearted business idea of the week is this proposal to stimulate berry production in the Northwest Territories (ecologynorth.ca), while in Finland Arctia Shipping (the operator of Finland’s icebreaker fleet, which has something like half the world’s icebreakers) is looking for a multi-use icebreaker to replace its ship Voima (Eye on the Arctic).
Weirdly, the Washington Post picked up the news that fisheries managers in the north Pacific might call for a review of the status of the Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons in the Bering; and indeed, they agreed to reassess it later in the week (Bristol Bay Times). Next door in Canada, changes to the Fisheries Act might sharply reduce habitat protections (APTN), and the quota system for Canadian narwhal might be up for a big revamp as well under the proposed Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for Nunavut (Nunatsiaq Online). Indeed, though it’s not specifically mentioned in this article from Nunatsiaq Online, the pricing-out of things like Arctic fisheries is likely to become an important part of the policy dialogue over the long term.
In Russia, we’re wondering whom Murmansk’s port might have angered; the port is facing an unprecedented inspection. Murmansk also shipped some Norwegian fish back home, claiming improper labelling, while simultaneously agreeing to knowledge-sharing with Norway in the field of aquaculture. (All from Barents Nova 1, 2 & 3)
SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENT
As ever, there’s a lot of dismal news on the Arctic’s environment. For all the gory details, check out the National Research Council’s massive synthesis of findings from the International Polar Year 2007-2008 (Science Daily). The Guardian points out justifiably that it seems like we’re a day late and a dollar short on coming up with policies to protect the Arctic environment. Alternet.org bewails the reality that hydrocarbon drilling is happening in the Arctic, while Common Dreams warns of ecological ruin. The Earth Institute also offers a post on Greenland’s future, but - speaking here only for myself - I couldn’t get past the phrase “a sinewy dragon of light sparkles brilliant amber in the evening dusk.” Block that metaphor! Ecowatch.org and thinkprogress.org both posted more moderately-toned articles on a recent study showing that warming in the Arctic doesn’t just affect the Arctic.
And after all that, I would like to thank Caroline Flint for her thoughtful editorial in the Guardian, in which she points out that “simply hectoring from the sidelines turns people off.”
NASA and ESA are working together, top-gun style, in operation IceBridge to improve the accuracy of their ice measurements (ESA). As part of that, NASA is working on developing better technologies for ice research by sending a high-altitude science aircraft to study Greenland’s ice sheet (Arctic Portal). It’s amazing, also, what satellites can do - I barely understand this, but data from Cryosat-2 is going to be used to get better gravity data to help understand the composition and underlayers of the world’s continental shelves (Oil & Gas Journal).
News came out of Canada that the polar bear population in Western Hudson Bay is larger and healthier than expected (Nunatsiaq Online), sending people - people on Twitter, at least - into a frenzy of griping with one another. On one side are those that say that climate change is being used to promote a very specific agenda, and that shoddy observations are accepted because they seem correct. The other side argues that, although the numbers are higher than expected, they hardly indicated a large and healthy population. As usual, both sides have a point. The news has also, thankfully, helped to sustain the discussion of incorporating indigenous people’s knowledge and understanding with “western” science. A concise and well-written statement on the issue comes, as usual, from Mary Simon of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
The WWF published a post illustrating the challenges of tracking the bears even with radio collars, and the CBC told us this week about the first use of helicopters to track polar bear populations. While helicopters are new for polar-bear tracking, frightening-looking camera drones are being used instead to check on populations of Steller sea lions off Alaska, with interesting results (Bristol Bay Times). Elsewhere, the debate on keeping more polar bears in captivity to protect the species continues (NPR), as does the back-and-forth sniping over the paper published in Polar Biology that claimed to have observed drowned polar bear corpses floating in the Arctic (Summit County Voice). Two additional points: looks like polar bears undertake a sort of walking hibernation (video, Polar Bears International), and it looks as though this patchy-hair-and-skin-lesion illness that is going around has jumped from pinnipeds to bears (Reuters). It’s probably not that big a deal, but it gives me a sense of dread.
While polar bears capture the imagination, illegal-alien wolves in Finland are unwelcome (Eye on the Arctic). Finnish reindeer are helping to control climate change (Eye on the Arctic), and Sweden’s Arctic Ambassador Gustaf Lind offers this charming 2.5-minute video on the Arctic Council’s EALLIN project on reindeer herding youth, as well as other youth and indigenous issues (Arctic Portal). Walruses are hauling out on land in increasing numbers in Alaska (Wildlife Conservation Society). A well-preserved baby mammoth discovered in Russia seems to show signs of being butchered by humans (BBC). Finally and perhaps most importantly, a success in Vancouver: Arctic cod have been successfully bred in the aquarium there (newswire.ca).
Some cool miscellaneous bits of science news: there’s some creative thinking about how microbe-based oil spill cleanup methods might benefit from the new information that microdroplets of water can actually float atop oil, rather than sinking through (Science Daily). Kimberly Casey gives, via NASA, a good interview on particulate debris and melting glaciers (not just in the Arctic). The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute confirmed the existence of a previously unknown current - a new cog in the machinery of heat transfer between the world’s oceans. We learned that Amundsen’s research on the magnetic pole was excellent, even with limited and comparatively rudimentary equipment (Fairbanks News Miner), and a captivating blog post on research into Arctic flora really conveys the joy of observational research (Canadian Museum of Nature).
Ice fishing is popular in Yakutia (eyakutia.com), but it’s not without its risks: 600 fishermen were rescued from a breakaway piece of ice this week in the Sea of Okhotsk (Arctic Portal). Not far away, a Bering Strait swim is planned for 2013 (RIA Novosti). In Canada, the Yukon cross-country championships took place this week (Whitehorse Star), and the Whitehorse Star gave us a little bit of news on the Canadian speed skating community as well. In sports insanity, it looks like the last holdouts of a group of skiers looking to reach the North Pole unsupplied have decided to abort their run (explorersweb.com).
If you’re interested in aboriginal languages, there’s a great collection of interviews available from the Native Communication Society of the Northwest Territories.
Norman Surplus, what are you thinking? He is going to attempt to fly one of these across the Russian Arctic, as part of a global circumnavigation. Should be a great trial for those search-and-rescue facilities we’ve heard about (Larne Times).
This is Antarctic, but...did you know you can see penguin guano from space?
The most existentialist, nihilistic possible interview from famed Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki is worth a read and a giggle (Guardian).
This post is a little bit “mystical,” but I nevertheless think it makes an important point.
*This was added on Wednesday, 11 April, after being brought to tour attention by the Pew Environment Group.