Take Five is The Arctic Institute’s news roundup that gives you everything you need to know about what’s happened in the Arctic this week. Short in length but big on insight, from politics and culture to the environment and security, we look beneath the headlines to see what’s really going on. Published each Friday, our quick and fun redux breaks down the five biggest circumpolar stories with fresh editorial analysis so you can get caught up on the region in under five minutes. Take Five means you’ll never miss a beat on what matters most.
Heavy fuel oil inches closer to being banned in the Arctic
A submission to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) from Canada, Indigenous groups, and WWF-Canada to tighten restrictions on using and carrying heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic is garnering wide support. At a recent meeting at the IMO’s London headquarters, the submission, which seeks to reduce the impacts of HFO in the Arctic through a variety of measures, got support from all of the Arctic states plus several non-Arctic states, including Germany (Seatrade Maritime News, The Motorship). HFO is already banned in the Antarctic and Norwegian Arctic (Seatrade Maritime News).
TAKE 1: If HFO is to be eventually banned in the Arctic, this is likely the first step. Looking into the potential impacts of increasing maritime traffic in the region has been a concern of Arctic states and organizations for some time, as once it’s in the ecosystem, it remains there for a very long time. Under normal circumstances, it gets into the environment via, for example, exhaust, but one of the big worries is if a spill were to occur because the Arctic’s remoteness and often dangerous conditions spell trouble for disaster management.
An explosive summer
There are more reports coming from Siberia of methane finding its way out of the permafrost. This time, an explosion: seen by local reindeer herders, it occurred on a riverbank in the eastern Yamal Peninsula, creating a massive sinkhole (IBO, Siberian Times). On the peninsula alone, there are over 700 sites that have been identified as potentially eruptive as well as ten reported craters (Siberian Times, Arctic.ru). Siberian methane was in the news earlier this year with early research finding it to be bubbling up from lakes (Science Alert).
TAKE 2: With the ground so unstable and unpredictable because of the melting permafrost, people living in the area are naturally concerned about safety, as an explosion could conceivably affect a village (Siberian Times). And there are other worries that the gas bubbles could seriously disrupt gas lines from Russia to Europe if they explode: but even without an explosion, the uplift caused by the building gas can cause the lines themselves to bend, which is obviously not desirable, either (Siberian Times). Of course, in the even larger picture, an exodus of methane from the permafrost can be part of a positive feedback loop: with methane being even more of a potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, more warmth can spell more melt.
NATO anti-sub drill concludes in Iceland
With ships, submarines, aircraft, and some 2,000 personnel, the NATO exercise Dynamic Mongoose 2017 (DMON17) wrapped up in Iceland this week. The 10-day drill involving 10 countries trained sailors and aircrew in submarine and anti-submarine combat (IBO, RCI, Naval Technology). In the words of US 6th Fleet deputy commander rear admiral Daryl Caudle, a goal of the exercise was to “[ensure] we will maintain freedom of movement in the undersea domain” (Naval Technology).
TAKE 3: In previous years, the same annual show of force has been conducted in Norwegian waters (IBO). With Russia’s Northern Fleet being based neighboring Norway on the Kola Peninsula, moving Dynamic Mongoose to Iceland this year can be read as a move to avoid provocation; as well, this year’s exercise is smaller than last year’s by 1,000 personnel (Naval Technology). With all the military and rhetorical buildup between Russia and NATO over the past few months, NATO seems to be wagering that dialing down some of the pressure in the north is the better move at the moment. Russia was certainly paying attention, choosing to test an anti-ship cruise missile from an underwater nuclear sub in the Barents Sea days before DMON17 concluded (Newsweek).
In pursuit of Alaska’s oil and gas…one way or another
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order last week that would speed up the permit process for oil and gas drilling on federal land (here’s looking at you, Alaska). Currently, the average time it takes for a permit to process is 257 days; the order aims to cut it down to 30 (RCI). While this particular order won’t affect offshore areas, in late June, the Interior Department started the process of developing new five-year plan for drilling offshore by issuing a “request for information” from the public regarding the effects of offshore drilling including in the Arctic Ocean (Washington Post, Think Progress). And in addition, there’s now a plan from the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to combine 20 separate leases in the Beaufort Sea into one, which would prevent the imminent expiration of several of the current leases (Platts).
TAKE 4: Efforts to develop natural resources in Alaska are being undertaken on multiple fronts: and if President Trump wants to make good on his pledge to seek US “energy dominance,” it would only stand to reason that the many levels and branches of government bureaucracy would also need to get on board. But without the support of elected officials—which, in the present political moment, isn’t looking like a sure bet from even many Republicans—and without oil prices that are high enough to justify going into the Arctic, oil could still stay underground and underwater (Washington Post).
More oil found offshore in Norway
In other oil news, Norway’s Statoil has struck proverbial gold. The first of several Arctic wells in the Barents Sea that are slated to be drilled this summer, “Kayak” is estimated to hold 25-50 billion barrels of crude oil (News in English, Oil Price). The discovery is located 225 km (140 miles) northwest of Hammerfest off of Norway’s north coast (IBO).
TAKE 5: On the heels of an April announcement that there is up to twice as much oil in the northern Barents as previously thought (IBO), Norway’s state oil company seems to be having a good run and is aggressively developing its lease areas. But time isn’t on its side: coming down the pipeline for November is a court case between Greenpeace and the Norwegian government, with Greenpeace having sued it for violating its own constitution and the Paris Accord by allowing Arctic drilling, which will likely help fuel more public opposition (Oil Price, Business Insider).