Tag Archives: Arctic oil pollution

Fish, Gas and Minerals: the Arctic

Mr Xi has been showing a growing interest in Arctic countries. In 2014 he revealed in a speech that China itself wanted to become a “polar great power”..,,In January 2018 the Chinese government published its first policy document outlining its Arctic strategy.

China is also keen to tap into the Arctic resources that will become easier to exploit as the ice cap retreats. They include fish, minerals, oil and gas. The region could hold a quarter of the world’s as-yet-undiscovered hydrocarbons, according to the United States Geological Survey. Chinese firms are interested in mining zinc, uranium and rare earths in Greenland.

As the ice melts, it may become more feasible for cargo ships to sail through Arctic waters. China is excited by this possibility (its media speak of an “ice silk road”). In the coming decades such routes could cut several thousand kilometres off journeys between Shanghai and Europe. Sending ships through the Arctic could also help to revive port cities in China’s north-eastern rustbelt… China is thinking of building ports and other infrastructure in the Arctic to facilitate shipping. State-linked firms in China talk of building an Arctic railway across Finland.

Chinese analysts believe that using Arctic routes would help China strategically, too. It could reduce the need to ship goods through the Malacca Strait, a choke-point connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. Much of China’s global shipping passes through the strait. It worries endlessly about the strait’s vulnerability to blockade—for example, should war break out with America.

There are no heated territorial disputes in the Arctic, but there are sensitivities, including Canada’s claim to the North-West Passage, a trans-Arctic waterway that America regards as international—ie, belonging to no single state.

Plenty of non-Arctic countries, including European ones, have similar dreams. But China is “by far the outlier” in terms of the amount of money it has pledged or already poured into the region, says Marc Lanteigne of Massey University in New Zealand. Its biggest investments have been in Russia, including a gas plant that began operating in Siberia in December 2017. Russia was once deeply cynical about China’s intentions. But since the crisis in Ukraine it has had to look east for investment in its Arctic regions.

The interest shown by Chinese firms could be good news for many Arctic communities. Few other investors have shown themselves willing to stomach the high costs and slow pay-offs involved in developing the far north…. The main concern of Arctic countries is that China’s ambitions will result in a gradual rewiring of the region’s politics in ways that give China more influence in determining how the Arctic is managed. Greenland is a place to watch. Political elites there favour independence from Denmark but resist taking the plunge because the island’s economy is so dependent on Danish support. The prospect of Chinese investment could change that. Should Greenland become independent, China could use its clout there to help further its own interests at meetings of Arctic states, in the same way that it uses its influence over Cambodia and Laos to prevent the Association of South-East Asian Nations from criticising Chinese behaviour in their neighbourhood.

Excerpts from The Arctic: A Silk Road through Ice, Economist, Apr. 14, 2018, at 37

Arctic Oil Spills are Not Preventable

The Arctic Council Oil Spill Task Force, jointly led by the US, Norway and Russia, has finalized its work with drafting an agreement on oil pollution incidents in Arctic waters.  The agreement is to be presented and signed during the upcoming Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in May. The agreement comes as a result of a decision made by ministers of the 8 Arctic Countries at their previous meeting, i.e., in May 2011 in Nuuk, Greenland, to develop an international instrument on Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response.

The agreement will cover Arctic marine areas of the 8 Arctic Countries and apply to all kind of possible pollution sources, oilrigs and ships, except ships operated by a state such as naval vessels. The oil spill agreement will stipulate that each Arctic country must have a system in place that takes into account activities or places that are particularly likely to give rise to or suffer from incidents as well as areas of special ecological significance. Among other things, the agreement will contain rules for notifying about, monitoring, and assisting in responses to oil pollution incidents. It also will have stipulations regarding information exchange, the carrying out of joint exercises and training, and meetings of the parties to the agreement.

While advocating a moratorium on Arctic marine oil and gas extraction, environmentalist groups that have been following the preparation of the agreement text are welcoming it as a step forward in fighting oil spills. According to environmentalists, given that resource exploration and extraction in Arctic waters is increasing, oil spill incidents will inevitably happen. These groups also praises the fact that the agreement will recognize the role of indigenous peoples and other Arctic residents in supporting oil spill preparedness and response. Yet, at the same time, they criticize the agreement for not facilitating the use of privately owned – i.e., by oil companies – response equipment. NGOs furthermore point out that while the agreement goes a good long way to maintain and harmonize national procedures, it fails to commit its parties to actually raise their preparedness and response standards.

From the website of Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat

The Arctic Challenger: ready for Arctic oil spills

Shell Oil has been building and testing equipment designed for the Arctic Ocean in Puget Sound, Seattle, United States.  In September, a key test of underwater oil-spill equipment was a spectacular failure.  It forced the energy giant to postpone drilling into oil-bearing rocks beneath the Arctic Ocean until next summer. Shell and its federal regulators have been tight-lipped about the failed test.  But a freedom-of-information request reveals what happened beneath the surface of Puget Sound.

Before Shell can drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, it needs to prove to federal officials that it can clean up a massive oil spill there. That proof hinges on a barge being built in Bellingham called the Arctic Challenger.  The barge is only one component of Shell’s plans for handling oil spills off the remote north coast of Alaska. But the Obama Administration won’t let oil drilling get under way until the 36-year-old barge and its brand new oil-spill equipment are in place,  On board the Arctic Challenger is a massive steel “containment dome.” It’s a sort of giant underwater vacuum cleaner. If efforts to cap a blown-out well don’t work, the dome can capture spewing oil and funnel it to a tanker on the surface.

The Arctic Challenger passed several US Coast Guard tests for seaworthiness in September. But it was a different story when its oil-spill containment system was put to the test in 150-foot-deep water near Anacortes, Washington.  The federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement required the test of the oil-spill system.

According to BSEE internal emails obtained by KUOW, the containment dome test was supposed to take about a day. That estimate proved to be wildly optimistic.

•Day 1: The Arctic Challenger’s massive steel dome comes unhooked from some of the winches used to maneuver it underwater. The crew has to recover it and repair it.

•Day 2: A remote-controlled submarine gets tangled in some anchor lines. It takes divers about 24 hours to rescue the submarine.

•Day 5: The test has its worst accident. On that dead-calm Friday night, Mark Fesmire, the head of BSEE’s Alaska office, is on board the Challenger. He’s watching the underwater video feed from the remote-control submarine when, a little after midnight, the video screen suddenly fills with bubbles. The 20-foot-tall containment dome then shoots to the surface. The massive white dome “breached like a whale,” Fesmire e-mails a colleague at BSEE headquarters.

Then the dome sinks more than 120 feet. A safety buoy, basically a giant balloon, catches it before it hits bottom. About 12 hours later, the crew of the Challenger manages to get the dome back to the surface. “As bad as I thought,” Fesmire writes his BSEE colleague. “Basically the top half is crushed like a beer can.”

Representatives of Shell Oil and of BSEE declined to answer questions or allow interviews about the mishaps. In an email, Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh writes:  Our internal investigation determined the Arctic Challenger’s dome was damaged when it descended too quickly due to a faulty electrical connection, which improperly opened a valve. While safety systems ensured it did not hit the bottom, buoyancy chambers were damaged from the sudden pressure change.

Environmental groups say the Arctic Challenger’s multiple problems show that Shell isn’t prepared for an Arctic oil spill.

Excerpt, By John Ryan, Sea Trial Leaves Shell’s Arctic Oil-Spill Gear “Crushed Like A Beer Can”, Kuow.org. Nov. 30, 2012