The Arctic This Week - News for April 8 - April 14, 2012




By Tom Fries - News for April 8 - 14, 2012

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Thanks for joining us this week! If you've only got a few minutes, the following five articles offer the best value for your time. This week, each is a window onto an issue you may not have thought about in detail before.

1. Aftenbladet provided a great article on the world of hotel ships / accommodation rigs.

2. The Bellona Foundation wrote a nice article on the issues that accompany the use of nuclear icebreakers in the Northern Sea Route.

3. Rural schools are the anchors for many communities in remote Alaska. Alaska Dispatch reports on what happens when they close.

4. Of course there are guidelines for the technical details of seal harvesting in Canada. But I bet you haven't read them. Now you can, in this memorandum from the Canadian Veterinary Medicine Association.
5. The Hans Island Canada/Denmark issue has been most entertainingly illustrated by this piece from Matt Gurney of the National Post

BLOOD AND TREASURE

Thankfully, there was less news in the impending-war vein this week. Euractiv offered a fairly hawkish piece (that looks as though it might have come from Stratfor), and of course there was news to quicken the pulse about the Indian carrier awaiting service in the Arctic (India Today) and China's new icebreaker, which at 8,000 tons displacement will be stronger than the Xue Long (China Daily). 

There was also plenty of news to illustrate ongoing cooperation in the Arctic. We heard that the Russian and Norwegian navies are preparing for joint exercise POMOR-2012, which will take place in Russian and Norwegian waters and be focused on anti-terror and anti-piracy operations (Barents Observer), while the Russian Border Patrol and the US Coast Guard had a series of meetings in Juneau this week, after which they signed a "document of understanding" covering cooperation on fisheries and law enforcement, among other issues (Juneau Empire). The US Coast Guard definitely recognizes that the Arctic presents a daunting challenge (Sea Power, San Francisco Chronicle), and the Canadian military of course sees the Arctic as a core concern. See an overview of Canada's largest ongoing military deals HERE from the CBC. Also in Canada, 150 soldiers, divers and rangers are taking part in Operation Nunalivut 2012, working on a couple of different possible scenarios (Nunatsiaq Online). Side note: had you heard about a project to install underwater listening devices along the Northwest Passage (redicecreations.com)?

Russia's foreign minister appears to have said that for Russia, too, the presence of a strong military in the Arctic is critical to protecting the sovereignty of Northern states (Interfax, subscription necessary). The world's largest country is considering both permitting foreign companies to invest in its military sector (Barents Nova) and adding mercenaries or "military contractors" to its staff (RIA Novosti). It's somehow disconcerting to note how the language for this form of employ has changed since the 1970s. The recent Ladoga exercise near the Finnish border brought together pilots from all across Russia's western military district this week (ITAR-TASS) and might also have inspired some reports of UFOs. And, as an entertaining side note, I'm quite sure everyone will enjoy hearing about the Kazakh paratrooper, now a national hero of sorts, who planted a Kazakh flag at the North Pole and, in his interview, expresses the possibility of building yurts there (caspionet.kz). 


THE POLITICAL SCENE



A report from Lloyd's of London and Chatham House this week was big news, particularly for those who are trying to highlight the risks that attend drilling in the Arctic. The four sectors that are looking for greatest investment, according to the report, are minerals, logistics, tourism and fisheries (NASDAQ), but there’s a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the estimated $100bn of investment, as well as what impact it will have on the environment (Guardian). There is, for instance, no international liability and compensation regime for oil spills. WWF Russia director Igor Chestin took a short swim in the Barents to bring attention to precisely this issue (Barents Nova). Mission accomplished, Igor.



This week also saw a short post from the IISS pointing out that cooperation, not conflict, is the model for the Arctic as we look to the future. Putin opted not to build any bridges, though, calling NATO a relic of the cold war (RIA Novosti). Prime Minister and soon-to-be-President Putin also spoke about corruption in Russia's military-industrial complex, saying that it needs to be "robustly curbed" (Interfax, subscription required), and nobody will be surprised to hear that not all Russians are happy with the division of spoils from the successfully resolved Russia/Norway border dispute (versia.ru, in Russian).



Erstwhile colleagues of former Murmansk regional governor Dmitri Dmitriyenko have lost no time whatsoever in discrediting him, now that he has been "deposed" (tv21.ru, in Russian). Other former colleagues are making for the exits, or being forced out of them; Natalya Portnaya, former first deputy governor, and deputy-governor Alexander Cherechecha have both left the stage (russia-media.ru). Meanwhile Marina Kovtun has been inaugurated as the new governor of the Murmansk region, saying (in what I’m sure is a translation of only middling quality) that “if you do not know what to do, then you should follow the word of the law” (Barents Nova). It’s good to have the law as a fallback, certainly, for times of indecision.

Civil cooperation is taking place below the federal level as well. More than 150,000 people have crossed the Russia-Norway border in the first quarter of 2012 (Barents Nova), and the Arkhangelsk region is looking at signing a cooperation agreement on oil and gas activity with Rogaland county in Norway (Barents Observer). They might have been hard-pressed to find people to talk to this week: at the time of this writing there was buzz of a possible strike by 29,000 Norwegian oil and gas workers (Aftenbladet). Side Note: the strike was averted before publication.

Across the ocean, we see again that getting things done isn't simply a matter of locking in a policy decision. The United States' new icebreaker sounds great, but where will the money come from? Look to see the Coast Guard fighting with the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation in future budget rounds (Sea Power). It looks as though one conceivable option might be co-financing by the federal government and the state government of Alaska. At least, that seems to be what Governor of Alaska Sean Parnell is suggesting (Alaska Dispatch). Next door, the government of Nunavut signed a 20-year contract this week with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to support the territory's needed police work, at a price of $30mn (Nunatsiaq Online). Canada also spent some of the week in discussions with Denmark over division of the tiny rock of Hans Island (National Post). Perhaps a resolution is at hand? Let us hope, particularly if said resolution would give Canada a land border with the EU for the first time. To entertain yourself with the scale and gravity of this particular debate, enjoy this snarky post from Matt Gurney, also from the National Post.

ENERGY AND MINING

Let's lead the energy section with this bizarre article from Voice of Russia. If you read it as a series of short, disconnected, FYI-style memos, it contains a great deal of information.

There's been big news out of Gazprom's Shtokman project this week and, more generally speaking, out of the Russian offshore hydrocarbon industry as a whole. Alexander Medvedev suggested that Russia would export the same amount of natural gas to Europe as it did in 2011 (Bloomberg) and that Gazprom now plans to liquefy all of the Shtokman project's hypothesized production in order to give it better access to world markets, a decision which might have noticeable impact on the EU (neurope.eu). Reuters reported instead that exports to Europe might be less than in 2011, and the IEA said that delays in the Shtokman project are to blame for reduced estimates of Russian oil and condensate production this year (Bloomberg). There are also signs of interest in Murmansk for moving the city to natural gas heating as opposed to more expensive fuel oil (Barents Nova).

Putin also announced this week a "holiday" of sorts for taxes on projects on Russia's continental shelf. Such projects, he hopes, will yield billions of dollars in revenues and hundreds of thousands of new jobs (RIA Novosti, Russia Today). Continued high levels of Russian partnership (70-75%) are likely to remain as a precondition (phys.org). The revised terms are planned to last 15 years (ITAR-TASS), and the draft laws should be ready by October, they say (RIA Novosti). I'll believe all this is happening when I see it.

Lukoil, Surgutneftegaz, TNK-BP and Bashneft have all asked for special access to projects on the continental shelf (Barents Nova), while elsewhere, Gazprom, E.On and BASF began gas production from a new layer of the Yuzhno-Russkoye field (Bloomberg). If you'd like a well-written and relevant overview of the pipelines that carry Russian gas around, and the various policy challenges that confront each of them, check out this article from Forbes.

Next door in Norway, it was nice to read a fascinating article from Aftenbladet on the dearth of lodging rigs for the oil industry. I have no basis for comparison, but a shortage of 7,000 beds sounds pretty dramatic. Indeed, Statoil is planning to spend 700m kroner on new hotel ships (Aftenbladet). We also heard that UK-based Subsea 7, a subsea-drilling firm, is planning on expanding its Norwegian footprint in Oslo as well as in Stavanger in an effort to deal with talent shortages (Aftenbladet). 

Norwegian firm Solstad Offshore has secured three large contracts for supply vessels to Total, EDT Energy (Egypt) and Statoil (Aftenbladet), and Havila Shipping has also secured a contract with Total for a platform supply vessel (Aftenbladet). Perhaps these supply vessels will help with development of new licenses in Norway's most recent round, which is heavily focused on the Barents, with 2 licenses in the North Sea, 13 in the Norwegian and 33 in the Barents (neurope.eu). Not all is progress and expansion, though; Statoil announced that it would be cutting its workers' pensions while leaving those of its top-level staff untouched (Aftenbladet). As you can imagine, that news was not well received by the relevant unions.

After weeks of major successes for the oil majors in North America, this week saw public outcry in the Yukon against drilling in the Whitehorse Trough, to which the government capitulated (CBC). In the US, a coalition of environmental groups filed an appeal in the ninth circuit court of appeals against the federal government's decision to permit drilling in the Chukchi Sea (enewspf.com), and a blogger on the Huffington Post suggested that a trial run with a fake spill of enormous quantities of ketchup in the Chukchi would be a reasonable way to test response capabilities. It's not perfect, but it's definitely an amusing idea.

Quebec is pushing its Plan Nord for Nunavik as a promising new resource base for rare earth elements (Nunatsiaq News), and Peregrine Diamonds is preparing to increase its exploration efforts at its Chidliak site near Iqaluit in Nunavut (Nunatsiaq News). If you'd like to get a feel for how the companies themselves assess their environmental performance, you can check out Norilsk Nickel's review of its own record in 2011 (steelguru.com). The Qikiqtani Inuit Association has hired Bernie MacIsaac as the new director of its lands and resources department, which is charged, among other things, with assessing proposals for extractive projects on Inuit-owned lands across the Baffin region. Please take note of the comments section (Nunatsiaq News). Next door in Alaska, there's a frenzy of interest in mining for gold at the bottom of the sea off of Nome (Alaska Dispatch). I tell you, put something on TV...monkey see, monkey do. We mentioned also last week that small-scale "personal" mining is permitted in lots of unexpected places in the Yukon. This is creating problems; a gentleman has placer-mined away a good bit of the substructure for a significant road in hopes of reaching the gold underneath (CBC).

SOCIETY and ECONOMY

Budget cuts in Canada are forcing continued tough decisions, and this week the federal government announced that the National Aboriginal Health Organization would be completely cut (CBC). The decision has, of course, been extremely contentious, although it seems that it was partially supported by some key aboriginal organizations (Nunatsiaq News). Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the decision was due to the organization's governance challenges (CBC). Strong opposing responses to the decision came in an opinion piece from the Globe and Mail and from the Native Women's Association of Canada. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami will be seeking a new president soon, and incumbent president Mary Simon has not announced yet whether she will run or not. It would be her third three-year term in the role (Nunatsiaq Online). The Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Committee - founded to help make amends for years of abuse of aboriginal children in Canada's residential schools - held hearings this week in Tuktoyaktuk, and will be doing so in the future in other locations around the Beaufort delta (CBC). 

The Atlantic published a really comprehensive piece on the Nenets people of Siberia this week. For those studying the Nenets and other aboriginal groups professionally, there was also a call for papers this week on Arctic anthropology (arcticanthropology.org). It's been a good week for reporting on indigenous peoples' issues; Eye on the Arctic was nominated for a Webby award for its series on the health crisis in the Arctic. Indeed, it wasn't the only Arctic Webby nomination - Greenland's tourism website also received a nomination for a best-of prize (Nunatsiaq News).

As the economic crisis continues to ripple around the world, residents in the Yukon are relying on the Whitehorse food bank in increasing numbers, and they are coming from farther and farther away (Whitehorse Star). There are similar issues in Labrador, where the government's Nutrition North Canada program is being blamed for driving food prices sky-high - up to $7 for a loaf of bread in one example (CBC). The price of food is but one component of the systemic challenges that attend remote communities in the North; a new Department of Health study suggests that modest increases in the number of midwives available could substantially improve maternal health outcomes for the Northwest Territories (CBC). Residents of Iqaluit often have to travel to Ottawa for any complicated medical work, and the home in which many of them stay for courses of treatment or for recuperation is often over capacity (Nunatsiaq News). Expansion is necessary, but who should pay? It's owned by the Nunasi and Qikiqtani Inuit corporations, and it's not within Nunavut. 

Mobility means air travel for most residents of the High North, but these communities are facing a growing problem with vandalization of the planes that they depend on (Nunatsiaq News). In response, Nunavut is planning increases in airport security (CBC). The government of Yukon is partnering with the federal government to put $37 million into small-scale but important infrastructure projects in the territory, of which the most interesting might be geothermal heating for a First Nations community (CBC). Meanwhile, Inuvik looks like it will be switching to propane from natural gas, but this will mean a substantial increase in truck traffic (CBC) and a doubling in the price of heating, which cannot be good news for the community. Some residents are considering converting to wood-pellet stoves instead (CBC).

Next door in Alaska, Alaska Dispatch published an excellent piece this week describing the role played by rural schools in sustaining remote Alaska communities. State funding for the very smallest has dried up, and there are many challenges for the communities that have lost their schools. Education and community are necessary sustaining factors for life in the High North, and the Norwegian Barents Secretariat is supporting "people to people" projects with neighbor Russia to the tune of €18mn over the next three years (Barents Observer). Trude Pettersen of the Barents Observer offered a brief but information-rich overview of the planned search-and-rescue facilities opening in the Russian Arctic, and Putin this week touted GLONASS, which will certainly play a key role in any search-and-rescue effort there, as being ahead of the game in comparison with other countries' systems (Interfax, subscription required).

Nuclear icebreakers will be required to traverse the Northern Sea Route, and Bellona published an excellent piece this week illustrating the enormous complexity of regulating that traffic. There are definitely political challenges there. 

Moving back to land, Russian Railways president Vladimir Yakunin has said that a decision on the Bering tunnel should be made by 2017, and that the project could be implemented within 10-15 years after that (Moscow Times). Nobody hold your breath, please. At the other end of that imaginary tunnel, the Alaska Northern Waters Task Force presented a series of four recommendations to improve Arctic infrastructure (Alaska Dispatch). None are shocking, but it's a nice analysis nonetheless.

Though I've been hearing anecdotally that Norway is desperate for workers, the opposite seems to be the case in Yukon, where unemployment is considered an issue (Whitehorse Star). Russia is trying to goad its own private sector into action by easing entrepreneurship, streamlining the civil code that governs the founding and management of new businesses (Barents Nova). Statistics Canada released some retail figures by province/territory this week. It's a weirdly incomplete table, but if you'd like to see how daily commerce looks in the Northwest Territories, you can. Russia is also looking to expand its tourism industry by making an effort to open Franz Josef Land to visitors. The price tag for those considering it, though, is pretty steep (RIA Novosti). In other business news, Norway's shrimp fisheries are now MSC certified (fis.com), and the salmon market might be looking at a shakeup this year (Anchorage Daily News).

SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENT

It's not just the famous PEARL research station - Arctic monitoring stations in general are feeling as though their funding is less secure than it has been (Chicago Tribune). This is a shame, as there's new research indicating that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide may also have had a role in the demise of the last ice age (Alaska Dispatch). We also learned this week that the live biomass of vegetation on the Arctic tundra has increased by 19.8% since 1982 (ERW). And, if you should need a flood of dismaying information about the Arctic permafrost, you can find it at Climate Code Red.

In other climate news, the David Suzuki Foundation published a report on the efforts undertaken by Canada's provinces and territories to combat climate change. Nunavut and Yukon did not fare well (CBC). On Twitter, there was some good debate about the Suzuki Foundation's failure to acknowledge context; obviously it's harder to use renewable energy in Iqaluit than in Vancouver. Meanwhile, there's a possibility that protections might soon be in place for the Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons (Discovery), and NASA published an OK post and a fascinating diagram of some of the research being done by their IceBridge P3 planes. 

Russia and the US are preparing for a massive collaborative survey of seals in the Bering (Voice of Russia), while Finns in Simo don't even need to leave their front yards to do seal research, thanks to an adorable pup that flopped its way up from the nearby river (YLE). The Canadian Veterinary Medicine Association also published a really enlightening set of guidelines on how, exactly, seals ought to be killed. To protect seals and other marine wildlife in the Arctic, many groups are demanding speed limits for boat traffic (Eye on the Arctic). Going aloft, there's some great new insight into how birds use storms to assist with their long-distance migrations (Fairbanks News Miner).

It's really amazing to think that polar bears are not themselves political actors when you see the amount of debate that their well-being generates. Thanks are due to the CBC for a clear, concise post illustrating the issues that keep them in the news. Polar bear researchers warned this week that the positive news on the bear population in western Hudson Bay isn't as positive as one might think (canada.com, Nunatsiaq News). This of course is part of a larger argument, and there's some coverage of that from Media Matters as well as a super-snarky post on the issue from the Ottawa Sun.

Even extinct animals create a stir: there's a new mammoth museum in an ice cave in Khatanga, Russia (siberianwonders.com), and we heard this week that indeed some dinosaurs might have stayed North despite the long polar periods of darkness (Nunatsiaq News).

In other miscellaneous science news, Nunatsiaq News gave us a great article on how icebergs are tracked and monitored today, and on the enormous challenge that this still presents for navigation. On land, one Russian gentleman took a trip down to the bottom of a permafrost well in Yakutia (askyakutia.com). I'm not even claustrophobic, and this just looks terrifying. Lastly, Iceland's volcanoes seem to be getting more active (icelandreview.com). It's probably nothing to worry about, but...

THE SPORTING LIFE

In sports this week, an Arctic marathon that took place on ice floes off of Spitsbergen grabbed some headlines. 41 runners competed, and congratulations are due to Andrew Murray of Great Britain, who won with a time of 4:17:08 (npmarathon.com). An Australian couple also took the opportunity to seal their engagement (MSN Australia). Organizer Richard Donovan celebrated this, the race's tenth anniversary, by taking his daughter Jaimie, age 8, to set foot on the North Pole, making her the youngest person ever to do so on-record (Yahoo News). Moving to motor sports, if you've been dying to acquire an unbeatable adventure story that will help you win many of your dinner parties, motorcycling the Road of Bones to Magadan in Yakutia might be the experience you need to acquire (askyakutia.com).

GRAB BAG

An issue I did not anticipate addressing when I took up this task was gay rights, but here we are. As some of you have probably noted, Arkhangelsk and many other Russian municipalities have recently passed laws outlawing "gay propaganda" (Barents Observer), which appears to translate, practically, to "anything that seems gay-ish." Last week, gay activists were arrested in St. Petersburg (CNN), and Madonna herself has said that she will flout such regulations in a concert in St. Petersburg (many sources). The G8 took up the issue of protecting sexual orientation as a category, and Russia seems to have stonewalled them (ha!), saying that existing Russian law blankets all categories, and that no specific mention of sexual orientation will be added (RIA Novosti). Meanwhile in Anchorage, a municipal initiative to include sexual orientation and transgender self-identification as protected categories under employment law failed at the ballot box (HuffPost, NYT). Most astonishingly, in the run-up to the vote, there was apparently some (not very widespread) fear of gay riots in Anchorage (bentalaska.com). I mean, really? Can you just imagine?

Other miscellaneous headlines: Here's a fascinating interview from DNV Americas via gcaptain.com on many issues including Arctic shipping and hydrocarbon exploration.

There's a film festival in the works for the Murmansk region. (U of the Arctic)

Is Julian Assange correct in saying that the Swedish intelligence services intercept 80% of Russian internet traffic and sell it on to other countries? Wow. (RIA Novosti)

Very few of us who are interested in the Arctic would wish to do our jobs without the assistance of Barents Observer, and it's great to see the updating and innovating they're doing with the website. Congratulations, guys, and thanks for your great work.

Finland is considering funding a new Guggenheim museum, IF it will be constructed entirely from timber. (YLE)

Iceland will soon have its first mobile payments program. (IceNews)

Terrible spring flooding is expected to hit several towns on rivers in Russia's Arctic. (RIA Novosti)

VIEWING PARTY

Videos

Have fun with a choose-your-own-adventure set of videos from Greenpeace highlighting the Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons. This is the best use of YouTube that I’ve seen. (HuffPost)

A popular Norwegian adventure show is going to start broadcasting in Murmansk as well. (Barents Nova)

Enjoy this video of reindeer crossing the Mackenzie River between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk

Discovery offers this video of the painstaking wait for the breakup of Canada's Hay River

This one you'll have to go see for yourself. Werner Herzog has just released a film about the remote village of Bakhtia on the Yenisei river in Siberia. I doubt it will be showing in Germany, so I'll be looking forward to its iTunes release. (toronto.com)

Photos

Lyuba the baby woolly mammoth is on tour now. (MSNBC)