By Tom Fries - News for March 26 - March 31, 2012
Only have a few minutes to read? Here’s the most interesting and informative writing from this week.
1. Michael Byers on Canada’s icebreakers, in the Globe and Mail.
2. A good article on the delay in Shtokman, and on Gazprom more generally, from BusinessWeek.
3. Good blog post from Tom Barton on road construction in the Yamalo-Nenets region.
4. The history of Ellesmere Island’s name, from Nunatsiaq Online.
I would also like to add my own thanks and praise, for whatever it’s worth, to that of the Quebec Newspaper Association for the staff of Nunatsiaq Online, who provide seriously high-quality, information-rich writing on a wealth of different issues in Canada’s Arctic.
POLITICS AND SECURITY
Russia is no doubt trembling to see that the French are considering how they can establish a real role in the Arctic (Arctic Security) as part of their NATO commitment. Doubtless in response to this imminent threat from abroad, Mother Russia is building naval bases for Borei and Yasen class submarines, as well as corvettes and frigates, in the Murmansk region, Primorsky territory and Kamchatka (Russia Beyond the Headlines), and has launched the first of her upgraded Delta-IV class subs from the Zvedochka shipyard in Severodvinsk on the White Sea (Barents Observer). Russia is also examining military cooperation with Sweden (RIA Novosti), which it seems will mostly be of the search-&-rescue stripe, while neighbor Norway is in essence re-branding a northern battalion as its Arctic battalion (Barents Observer).
Across the ocean, the True North Strong and Free has a new budget, and there’s been a fair amount of analysis of what it might mean for the Arctic (Globe and Mail, Eye on the Arctic). As part of the debate around said budget’s dramatic haircut of the proposed new port in Nanisivik (CTV), MP Dennis Bevington asked why the funds wouldn’t simply go to shoring up infrastructure in Iqaluit, where there’s a larger contingent of humans who would benefit (Nunatsiaq Online). Other issues on the table? The urgency of a $3bn investment in upgrading the country’s limited fleet of search-and-rescue aircraft (The Star). Note the contrast with Russia, which is deploying an additional 18 emergency aircraft to the Arctic (Barents Observer). Arctic Journal also provided a usefully comprehensive - though broad - overview of the condition of Canada’s Coast Guard, while its southern neighbor the US Coast Guard is looking at a busy summer (Alaska Dispatch).
Elsewhere in Canada there was some ferocious politicking in the Northwest Territories between federal and First Nation negotiators on a proposal to fuse three smaller land and water boards (Eye on the Arctic), and the question of a more independent form of government for Nunavik was raised once again (Nunatsiaq Online). There’s also a great opinion piece on Canada’s icebreaker fleet in the Globe and Mail by Michael Byers.
Across the 141st meridian west, this week saw the release of an analysis of the Department of the Interior’s contradictory policies in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas by the Center for American Progress. Sherri Goodman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies also argued that the US has a set of disconnected policies for dealing with the Arctic but no overarching strategy. And, to give you a good belly laugh, apparently the latest thing is to accuse President Obama of giving away “Alaskan” islands to the Russians (factcheck.org), whom the (albeit few) accusers clearly picture smoking Cuban cigars and rubbing their greedy little hands together in anticipation of the vast, ill-gotten treasure handed to them by their puppet in Washington. Seriously, folks?
There is of course a developing industry of people who, whether wisely or foolishly, are prophesying serious confrontation among Arctic nations over access to resources, shipping lanes, etc. Here are some bits in that vein from the world’s news outlets this week.
Michael T Klare has apparently hit a sweet spot for the press with his book “The Race for What’s Left” (policyinnovations.org, americanresources.org, engineeringnews.co.za). The Global Post published a piece with a perspective similar to that of Professor Klare, while the Chronicle-Herald approached from an economic angle. The Canadian Forum for Policy Research offered a well-researched but think-tanky overview of the situation. Meanwhile the Moscow Times took a - how shall I say - “distinctive” interpretation of the SIPRI study that emerged last week, highlighting as its central point the buildup of military might in the North. There’s also been word that Russia fears China’s Arctic ambitions (russiancouncil.ru), though it’s tough to imagine China projecting competitive military power into the Russian Arctic. The Guardian - I think correctly - in a newly-released e-book sees this more as competition between classes of actors than between nations.
ENERGY, MINING AND SHIPPING
Before getting into hydrocarbons, take a brief look first at Iceland’s efforts to drill to hell (Arctic Portal) for even yet still more geothermal energy, and at the opening of the largest solar facility in Canada north of 60, which will contribute to a reduction of Fort Simpson’s dependence on diesel fuel. (Gov’t of NWT) For some more details of and perspective on renewable energy north of 60, check out our own interview with Leanne Robinson of the Arctic Energy Alliance.
On to the greasy stuff. All the world was atwitter with the not especially surprising news that final Shtokman investment decisions have been postponed, possibly due in part to partner Total’s current nasty little issue with a gas leak at its Elgin platform in the North Sea. (Interfax Energy, Reuters). For some good reporting on the issue and on the project more generally, see this article from BusinessWeek. Seems as though uncertainty around export taxes is a big part of the issue (Bellona), and after the decision to hold off on further decisions regarding the project was announced, Putin hinted that some sort of positive development on taxes might be in the offing (Reuters). It’s not just tax issues, though; there are a lot of practical concerns like: Which airport will be best-suited to handle the industrial traffic (Barents Observer)? For a high-level overview of Russia’s natural gas industry, see this excellent article from Platts, and note that Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko is, at least in principle, encouraging diversification of the gas industry in Russia (Moscow Times).
There’s also been a judgment handed down from the sinking of the Kolskaya rig off of Sakhalin in a storm in December 2011, an event which left 53 dead. A deputy director of Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka, the responsible firm, has been fired after prosecutors pointed out what appears to be dramatic negligence (Eye on the Arctic). In spite of this December setback in the neighborhood, it looks like the Sakhalin III project is slated to begin production by the end of this calendar year (neftegaz.ru), which will in part help to build Russia’s energy profile in the Far East, serving its Asian neighbors (oilprice.com, upi.com).
Elsewhere in the country, Rosneft is preparing for seismic studies in the Yamalo-Nenets region. (Eurasia Review), while an environmental suit against Naryanmarneftegaz for a 2008 leak (Lukoil-ConocoPhillips) has been delayed in Murmansk because of disagreement over whether the discharge was “waste product” or if it “falls under the fourth hazardous class” (Russian Legal information Agency). Please don’t ask me to interpret that. There’s also positive news about oil production from the Vankor platform, which is ahead of schedule (Reuters).
Russia is looking to western neighbor Norway as a potential partner for projects on its own continental shelf (RIA Novosti), which is probably sensible as Norway’s oil industry claims to be the safest in the world (Aftenbladet). If that’s true, it’s a good reason for Helge Lund’s handsome salary last year (Aftenbladet). Should you wish to get a nice overview of the Statoil empire atop which he sits, you can check out this fairly comprehensive look (seekingalpha.com).
Norway’s next licensing round will be focused on the Arctic, as opposed to its territories in the North and Norwegian seas (Reuters), and some of the country’s licenses in the Barents have recently changed hands (iii.com, Bloomberg). The country’s Petroleum Directorate upgraded its online information offerings (arcticweb.com), while several big projects continue to move along. Noreco has begun working on a new well in the Barents (Reuters), while Eli Norge’s Goliat project in the Barents is preparing to receive a substantial delivery of equipment from Aker Solutions via the ship Happy Dragon, which is my favorite kind of dragon (Offshore Energy Today, breakbulk.com). Sevan Marine is being paid to do a year-long study into the viability of one of its rigs for the Skrugard/Havis project (4-traders.com). I wondered what the rig might look like - you can see for yourself here.
In the US, it’s been a big week for Shell, with two big wins and the delivery of its new 360-foot, Aiviq drillship (gcaptain.com). “Aiviq” apparently means “walrus” in Inupiat. The company got a preliminary injunction against Greenpeace in anticipation of further protests (Alaska Dispatch) AND got its plans for the Beaufort approved (Alaska Public Radio). You can imagine how Greenpeace and the Sierra Club reacted, and the Government Accountability Office wasn’t especially impressed either. Shell has argued its case on its website, and it is bringing in “Arctic Containment Systems” to be operated by Superior Energy to prepare for the spills it doesn’t plan to have in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this summer. (Marine Log)
There’s a great deal of politicking in Alaska over the state’s oil taxes (Alaska Dispatch) and over an internal pipeline, plans for which were approved this week by the state’s House (Anchorage Daily News). This week also saw the release of the Bureau of Land Management’s future scenarios for the National Petroleum Reserve, a document which is just begging for a martyred doctoral candidate to dissect it down to the last sinew. Some of the document must likely be devoted to the issue of dead-but-as-yet-unplugged wells in the Reserve, which apparently are fairly numerous (News Tribune).
In other news of interest, Scottish firm Cairn Energy this week was dropped from ethical funds run by F&C Investments as a result of its Arctic drilling activities (Herald Scotland), and a new high ice-class 3D seismic vessel (built by Ulstein Verft in Norway) joined the Polarcus fleet (Marine Log). Polarcus does seismic research and is based in the UAE.
In minerals this week, not everyone is pumped about the Harper government’s plans to streamline the permitting process for new extractive projects (Winnipeg Free Press), nor about the prospect of mining uranium in Finland’s high North (Eye on the Arctic). Indeed, Finnish politicians are beginning to demand higher taxes for extractive projects in general (Yle). Rio Tinto may also be reconsidering the economics behind its diamond mine 300 miles northeast of Yellowknife (Eye on the Arctic). Canadian companies are also looking across the Arctic; 2011 results were released this week for Silver Bear, a Canadian company whose primary assets are in Yakutia (MarketWatch). Next door to those assets in Yamalo-Nenets, OAO Alrosa is looking for investors for some portion of its gas assets as it tries to focus on its core diamond business (Bloomberg).
On the shipping front, we welcomed another great piece from Juliette Kayyem the Boston Globe on shipping through the Bering Strait. Meanwhile, easier shipping between Europe/Russia and Asia through the Northern Sea Route drew the attention of Voice of Russia. Russia appears to be preparing rules for the Northern Sea Route, which is a great step forward (Barents Observer), and the country is also considering connecting Murmansk in a more solid way with Russia’s rail system to increase the port’s value (Barents Nova).
SOCIETY and ECONOMY
Connecting people and communities to one another is a persistent problem in the Arctic, and we found a great blog post this week on building roads through the Arctic in the Yamalo-Nenets region. Air service also faces some unique challenges in the North (Skies). In Russia’s Arctic, representatives from the BEAR nations (Barents Euro-Arctic Region, a great acronym if ever there was one) met to work on ideas for better cross-cultural understanding and cooperation (Barents Observer). Indeed, the Russian North is trying in several ways to integrate itself better with its neighbors and the broader world, including the slow, slow, slow progress of a port economic zone near Murmansk on the western shore of the Kola Bay (Barents Nova) and a road show of Russian businesses to cities in northern Norway (Barents Nova). From the American side, Fyodor Soloview is attempting to revive the idea of connecting the US with Russia via a trans-Bering rail tunnel, an idea first floated by Tsar Nicholas II in 1905 (Alaska Dispatch). And the London-Tokyo cable to connect Europe to Japan via the Arctic? Arctic Fibre prices it out at $640 million (Montreal Gazette). Although laying cable is by no means as challenging as building a tunnel that humans are meant to traverse, that estimate still seems surprisingly low, as the (doubtless optimistic) estimates for the Barents tunnel run near the nice, round number of $100bn. Regardless, Arctic Fibre says work on the cable should start in 2013.
In Alaska, the unfortunate village of Kivalina declared an emergency as a result of wind-blown snow (Alaska Dispatch), and BusinessWeek published an article that highlights the chronic issue of damagingly high prices in remote communities like Nome.
Life in Nunavut is also not without its challenges; workers in the province are exposed to much higher levels of carcinogens than elsewhere in Canada (Eye on the Arctic). There’s also been an increase this year in wine sales in Nunavut of 40%, while liquor sales rose 20% (Statistics Canada). No word on what the per-capita figures are, unfortunately. For a study comparing violence in wet and dry communities in Nunavut, see this recent study. Tangentially related: the government of Canada is considering ways to integrate First Nation youth more thoroughly into the job market (MarketWatch) and into Canada’s larger cities (Edmonton Journal) in part as a salve for persistent challenges with higher-than-average drug and alcohol usage (Nunatsiaq Online). It’s easy to tell how delicate an issue this relationship is; witness this tough response to Canada’s decision to implement alternative sentencing for Aboriginal criminals. USA Rise Up published a brief piece, complementing the Canadian debate, on the dramatic changes faced by indigenous communities in Alaska over the course of the past century. These communities and others around the Arctic are facing an onslaught of challenges as their regions warm; Regional Environmental Change recently published recommended adaptation strategies for such remote communities.
The dual challenge of sustaining indigenous cultures and languages while providing for successful integration with the societies and norms that dominate below the Arctic Circle is a big one, and language is a significant component. We saw this week a worthwhile documentary on the incorporation of Inuktitut and Inuit culture into schools in Nunavut as a positive step forward, and noticed as well the Northwest Territories’ government’s efforts to preserve aboriginal languages (Gov’t of NWT) and the development of free apps to learn Dene languages (Gov’t of NWT) Now there’s an app for that, too. In an effort to continue to better-incorporate and gain from the knowledge of indigenous peoples around the Arctic, the Arctic Council also announced that Canada, the US and Denmark would fund an Inuit Circumpolar Council project to examine how changes in the Arctic are already affecting indigenous communities (Nunatsiaq Online).
SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENT
Because I think it’s been pretty well-established at this point that the current Arctic environment is likely not on its way to a long, happy and undisturbed life, we will move through the “everything is going straight to hell” news fairly quickly this week. R&D Magazine, CICERO in Norway, Norway’s environment minister (1 & 2) and New Scientist all pointed to research suggesting that the Arctic is at a tipping point and in serious need of short- and long-term mitigation measures. Aftenbladet also pointed to new research suggesting that increased carbon dioxide in the air is likely to delay the ice age that ought to be setting in, and the European Space Agency posted an animated GIF that claims to display evidence of warming in the Arctic via land-surface temperatures, but it’s a little hard to tell.
Considering the volume of news that comes out every week in this vein, it’s tough to keep reading about people, governments or organizations that “...have agreed to try to...” do things about it, as the Nordic countries did this past week (Eye on the Arctic). But I guess it’s better than agreeing NOT to try to do things. At a smaller scale, there are initiatives to try to gather ever-better information and explore mitigation technologies. The Scottish Marine Institute has a few cool trial runs for polar-ready science equipment underway this summer, the NASA IceBridge project continues to amaze and engage, MarketWatch gave us a nicely detailed piece on ongoing work to optimize ice-monitoring technologies, and the University of Arkhangelsk is starting up a 40-day summer program sending students to Novaya Zemlya (Barents Observer). An important component of all this research is getting it across in an appealing and engaging way, a task at which this October 2011 research expedition (1 & 2) on ocean acidification has done a nice job. On the wilder side, there’s further chatter about the changing cost-benefit relationship of using geoengineering (generally speaking) to, in theory, protect the Arctic. It’s also important to note once more that not everyone who lives in the North appreciates what some see as the finger-wagging of “environmental missionaries” (Yukon News).
In more specific news, this winter’s ice max has been declared (NSIDC 1 & 2), and we heard that a huge bulge of fresh water in the Arctic (the Beaufort Gyre) could have a major impact on world oceans and, thus, on our weather this year (MSNBC). We also saw the formation of “cloud streets” over Scandinavia (ouramazingplanet.com), and heard news that Russia, with UNESCO’s endorsement, is developing another seed bank in Yakutia’s northern reaches (a complement to the existing one on Svalbard) (Voice of Russia 1 & 2). You might also have fun poking around in a great interactive map of the environmental research assets in Alaska from that state’s Ocean Observing System.
On the animal front: As polar bear habitat gradually disappears, there’s a growing debate about whether greater numbers in captivity are the solution (Washington Post). Good news, though, about the bear population: the level of PCBs in their bloodstreams seem to be dropping gradually (Eurekalert). There’s also a persistent low buzz about the effects of sound on sea life in the Arctic (Bioscience) - most of which appears to be negative (Nunatsiaq Online). Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans is considering reducing the narwhal quota in Repulse Bay, Canada by half (CBC). South Korean scientists have been discussing the possibility of cloning a woolly mammoth, but it looks like that’s unlikely to happen (laborwelt.de). Lastly, there’s some new research underway into the unique traits that allow Alaska’s sled dogs to do the insane feats of athleticism that they do (U of Alaska Fairbanks).
In miscellaneous science news, it looks like the new Lenskie Stolby park in Yakutia is making an effort to supplant Africa’s Rift Valley as the site where the first evidence of man can be found (Voice of Russia), and there is research underway in Sweden into the possibility that lignin from wood could be used in the (distant) future as a battery core, reducing dependence on rare earth metals and mining (Sveriges Radio).
Great sports week, including one of the most whimsical of many entertaining Arctic sporting events, kiting across the Finnmark plateau (Barents Observer). Next door in Russia, 25 snowmobiles were flown to Salekhard for a 250km snowmobile race. Then they were flown back to wherever they’d come from (breakbulk.com). Across the Bering Strait in Alaska, there was some good coverage of the Kobuk 440 dog sled race (Alaska Dispatch) and a good interview with Marie-Anick Elie, the only woman to finish the recent Rondy in Inuvik (Eye on the Arctic), not to mention coverage from the Whitehorse Star of the Yukon ski and snowboard championships and a press release from DeBeers Canada on their recent ice-carving contest in Yellowknife.
As always, there’s a lot of news of daily life that doesn’t slide easily into categories. Here’s some of that.
In Alaska, everybody is pointing fingers at somebody else to pay for that late-season fuel delivery to Nome that grabbed so many headlines (Eye on the Arctic), while a lot of people seem to be having an easy time envisioning themselves as self-made millionaires thanks to the Discovery Channel’s perhaps ill-advised reality TV series “Bering Sea Gold” (Eye on the Arctic). Maybe it would be better to follow the example of a certain gentleman in Siberia who was clever, but not clever enough, in his pursuit of gold (RIA Novosti). Next door in Canada, the law of unintended consequences is in full effect; a modest push for longer-lived energy saving light bulbs is being blamed for increasing home flooding in the capital of Nunavut (Eye on the Arctic). Nunatsiaq Online provided a great read on the history of Ellesmere Island.
In Russia, travel and tourism are popping up more and more often. Perhaps you’d like to know road distances between Yakutsk and various other cities in Yakutia in preparation for your next visit (askyakutia.com)? You might instead want a Lonely Planet-style review of the road to Murmansk, via Nikel and Zapolyarny, from an Italian visitor, or a quick overview of how tourism in Novaya Zemlya is on the rise (Voice of Russia, Barents Observer). The public debate about disposal sites for nuclear waste in Finland’s North (Yle) probably won’t do much to goose tourism there, and some driven soul is planning on upping the numbers of North Pole tourists by 1 despite numerous setbacks (explorapoles.org).
On the education front, this past week saw a conference on Arctic sovereignty in North Carolina, of course, while the International Polar Year 2012 heralds numerous activities in Nunavik. Then, should you have just finished a big cross-stitch sampler and be wondering what to do with all your uncommitted hours, you can get a good number of free e-books on the Arctic from the Gutenberg Project. This should keep you busy.
This is a very complicated article on Iceland’s fishing quotas, and how they fit in with the larger Nordic fishing community (Arctic Portal).
Curious as to how you might be betraying yourself as a non-Norwegian (stavangerexpats.com)?
One doesn’t think of the auto industry as an Arctic thing, but in this case... (Popular Mechanics)
NASA has produced an amazing video of the Northern Lights from space.
Here’s a great time-lapse called “Arctic motion”
For folks in Berlin at the end of April, the Greenland Eyes film festival will be at your disposal.
Want to watch a young Russian woman shoot arrows like she’s in the Hunger Games?
Footage of the Northern Lights near Yellowknife
Track the Healy’s adventures with this annual series of photos.
Check out a pro’s photos of Spitsbergen.
Remember those rich Muscovites on a road trip that we mentioned last week? Here’s some more pics from that.