True North

Last week Shell announced it would send a fleet of ships into the Beaufort Sea to launch an oil drilling program. It is speculated that beneath the Beaufort Sea lie 8 billion barrels of oil and 30 trillion cubic feet of gas. The drilling is to take place 30 miles off the Alaskan coast, where despite protests from local communities the US Minerals Management Service OK’d the project. If Shell hits oil in commercially recoverable amounts, other companies are expected to follow. They include Repsol of Spain, Norsk Hydro of Norway and Conoco-Phillips of the US.

Malcolm Brinded, Shell’s chief executive of exploration and production, last week told the Times OnLine (London), “There has been drilling there, there has been exploration there, but this is a return to make a new charge at it. Some people say that 25 per cent of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbons sit in the Arctic. I think that may be optimistic but if it’s half right then it’s worth exploring. It has the right ingredients to be a good energy play and the world needs some new energy plays.”

Oil companies long have eyed the Arctic as an untapped source of oil and gas, but costly drilling and impossible physical and jurisdictional hurdles in transporting oil and gas down through Canada to the continental US.

The rapid melting of Arctic ice has introduced an entirely new factor into this play. To the north and East of the Beaufort Sea, the fabled Northwest Passage hits the North Pacific. At the eastern most end, it meets the North Atlantic, passing between Greenland and Iceland. For centuries this passage has been frozen over for all but a short time during the summer.

Now there is renewed speculation the passage will be open and navigable within a decade for big tankers and container ships. This ought to bring a boom in shipping because the passage cuts by one-third the distance from Europe to Asia. Commercial fishing boats will be able to get at vast schools of fish hitherto unreachable because of the ice. The world’s stock of fish has long been predicted to decline due to overharvesting.

At the same time, it will open yet another wild frontier in the far, far north, with nations fighting each other over fishing boundaries along with environmentalists trying to save the poles from marine pollution, and pirates darting in and out of a maze of islands. Both Russia and Canada consider their northern sea routes as national territory, but the U.S. views them as international waterways.

But while the US desires the Northwest Passage to be an international ocean highway, in reality, the US Navy already is figuring out how to control the region lest terrorists use it to launch an attack Research points out that policing the area will be difficult because there are no good communications satellites in orbit that cover the North Pole.

The Canadians, who usually get down for Washington, this time are determined not to be ordered around by Bush or anybody else in Washington.

Stephen Harper, the new Canadian prime minister wants to deploy ice breakers to patrol and defend the country’s arctic waters. David Wilkins, the American ambassador, made the Canadians mad when he said with the usual American arrogance, “There is no reason to create a problem that doesn’t exist.”

To which Harper replied, “The United States defends its sovereignty and the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty. It is the Canadian people we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States.”

In a Vancouver speech discussing the Northwest Passage, Michael Byers, an expert in international law at the University of British Columbia, warned of future dangers for Canada:

“Canadians should be alarmed. An international shipping route along Canada’s third coast could facilitate the entry of drugs, guns, illegal immigrants and perhaps even terrorists into this country, as well as providing an alternative route for illicit shipments of weapons of mass destruction or missile components by rogue states. And any shipping involves the risk of accidents, particularly in remote and icy waters. An oil spill would cause catastrophic damage to fragile Arctic ecosystems; a cruise ship in distress would require an expensive and possibly dangerous rescue mission. Any new fishery will be highly susceptible to over-exploitation, particularly because of the difficult-to-police location, rapid declines in fish stocks elsewhere and the consequent, excess fishing capacity that now exists worldwide.”

Canada is not in a good position to defend its interest in the Northwest Passage. It’s ships are not built to get through the ice most of the year and have to be deployed out of the area in winter. Its aircraft are old, and it has no trained troops in the Arctic. Harper has said he will beef up the country’s military presence with new icebreakers, a deepwater port, underwater sensors, and an Arctic trained airborne battalion.

JAMES RIDGEWAY is the author of 5 Unanswered Questions About 9/11, It’s All For Sale: The Control of Global Resources and A Guide to Environmental Bad Guys, co-written with Jeffrey St. Clair. Ridgeway can be reached through his website.



James Ridgeway is an investigative reporter in Washington, DC. He co-edits Solitary Watch.