Monday, February 25, 2013

How Important Is The Arctic? “. . . if this were a ball game, the US wouldn’t be on the field, in the stands, or even in the stadium.”

I picked up Bob Reiss' The Eskimo and the Oil Man (May 2012)  at the library the other day.  The Eskimo in the title is Edward Itta, whaling captain and former Mayor of Barrow.  The oil man is Pete Slaiby, Shell's lead man in Alaska.  I figured it might give me some insight into who this man leading Shell's troubled project to drill the Arctic. 

I'm about one-third of the way in, but it's already clear this book has information that every American should know.  And Alaskans, who think they know about the North, should be paying attention too. 

While some are still denying global climate change and humans' role in it, the world is changing fast and the North is going to take on a very big role in the world we will soon be living in. 

I suspect I'll be giving you bits and pieces as I go through this book.  Here's stuff on the importance of the Arctic and how far behind the US is compared to other Arctic nations.

Will the Northwest Passage become the new Panama Canal?
“. . . the Northwest Passage - the long-dreamed-of trade route between Europe and Asia, and the US, around the top of Canada and Alaska - could open to ships in summers as soon as 2020, some computer models predicted.

“If that happened up to 25 percent of the earth’s shipping might be passing Barrow within ten years, and if the specter of one drill rig could bother whalers, the idea of hundreds of unregulated ships out there was a nightmare.  (p. 29)
 “A single Chinese container ship sailing between Shanghai and New York could save up to $2 million on fuel and fees each way, using the northern route instead of the Panama Canal,”  Scott Borgerson, Oceans Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, had told me." (p. 30 )
There's no permanent Coast Guard base in Arctic.  
 '[The Coast Guard has [n]o way to monitor ship traffic or know whether or not a vessel was friendly, or about to rupture and spill oil, or whether it carried proper lifeboats for passengers.'

"Arctic could become pivotal place like Arabian Peninsula, Panama Canal."  (p. 30 )
Barrow the next Singapore?
"Borgerson predicted, “In twenty years the Arctic coast of Alaska may look like the Coast of Louisiana today, lit by the lights of ships and oil rigs.  One port there may become a trade hub as important as Singapore.  Singapore, once a mangrove swamp, is now the biggest seaport in the world.”(p. 31)

The US lags way behind other Arctic nations

“By spring 2010 many offshore oil advoates and opponents could agree on one thing at least:  the United States was notoriously unprepared for changes occurring in the region.  The nation had not signed the Law of the Sea Treaty.  It had not filed a claim for territory.  The US had one functioning icebreaker to address emergencies, while the Russians had twenty.  The US lacked proper communications equipment, lacked a deepwater port, lacked even basic science that could inform decision makers as to natural processes in the region before they made plans.  There was no cohesive national policy for addressing Arctic energy extraction. 

“In contrast other Arctic countries - Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark - were much further along when it came to purchasing new icebreakers and awarding undersea oil and gas leases, and they had begun the process of expanding their national territories through the Law of the Sea Treaty.
“‘The Arctic is crucial and the Arctic is now,”  said Adm Gene Brooks of the Coast Guard.  “But if this were a ball game, the US wouldn’t be on the field, in the stands, or even in the stadium.” (pp. 38-39)

 People make grandiose claims all the time, but Alaskans, because we travel a lot, understand that although we look remote on flat maps of the world, we are a in the middle of the shortest routes between Europe, Asia, and the US East Coast - about 8 hours by air to each.  From Europe to Asia via Barrow would be much shorter than the Panama Canal as the example above so clearly demonstrates.

Barrow might not become the new Singapore, but it will soon be on everyone's map.  I know a few people in Anchorage who have been very involved with Arctic issues and they are always telling me this same message.

It's understandable that the US is behind.  Alaska is the only Arctic state and we're not even attached to the other states.  The other nations - Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland,  and Denmark (representing Greenland and the Faroe Islands) - have a much larger proportion of their land on or near the Arctic.  You can learn more about the organization of Arctic nations - the Arctic Council - here.

But for us to ignore what we have, as these quotes suggest, will cost us dearly in the future.

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