Commentary: This Arctic party needs some good icebreakers

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates. 

There is this party starting in a very cool place and everyone who showed up is a little uncomfortable. Things are heating up – and not necessarily in a good way. This is the state of affairs in the Circumpolar North and its Arctic waters. Melting polar ice is opening up new navigational opportunities and offering access to previously inaccessible resources under the vast ocean floor. Metaphorically speaking, it is a nice place to hold a party. Yet the question is: who else is likely to show up and will they all get along? Basically, trans-Arctic commercial shipping requires access to icebreakers. 

The eight Arctic nations include Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Finland, Iceland (via Grimsey Island), Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States (via Alaska). Technically, Finland does not have direct access to the Arctic Ocean but part of it is within the Arctic Circle. All of these nations are members of an intergovernmental organization called the Arctic Council. It was established in 1996 to foster regional cooperation for the socio-economic welfare of the nearly four million people who live in the Arctic. To date there are 13 other nations with observer status, most notably China (2013).

(Photo credit: Flickr/Gennady Alexandrov)

The seven nations facing the Arctic Ocean have control over their domestic waters up to 200 nautical miles (nm) off shore and the resources underneath. Things can get dicey when one nation claims rights beyond 200 nm. Typically, it would have to show that its continental shelf extended beyond its domestic waters. Things also get dicey when issues of access to the Arctic Ocean and its navigable straits arise. Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia view their territorial straits as sovereign. However, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) view them as open to innocent passage because they connect different bodies of international waters. The most contentious example of this is the status of Canada’s Northwest Passage (NWP). The NWP curls around Canada’s sovereign Arctic islands but it connects Baffin Bay off Greenland with the Beaufort Sea off Alaska. As nations look to the Arctic as a new frontier for commercial shipping, resource extraction and tourism, these unresolved issues will become heated.

The U.S-Canada dispute over the NWP started in 1970 but lay dormant for decades. A major oil field was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in 1967. This was a joint venture by Standard Oil (renamed Exxon in 1973) and Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO). The question was how the oil would be transported to the East Coast. While the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) was the final decision, some consideration at the time was given to transporting it by ocean vessel. The Humble Oil & Refining Company (a subsidiary of Standard Oil) would take up the issue and stake $36 million to finance an oil transport expedition through the NWP. Standard Oil had a lot at stake. Since it dominated East Coast refining, naturally it wanted Alaska’s oil to be transported to its refineries. If the oil were routed to the West Coast then ARCO would have a larger benefit.

(Photo in public domain)

In 1969, the oil tanker S.S. Manhattan was used to see if the route was feasible. The Sun Shipyard and Dry Dock Company of Chester, Pennsylvania retrofitted the oil tanker with an icebreaking bow, thereby making it the largest icebreaker in the world. If successful, there would be a great deal more traffic in the NWP to move the 25 billion barrels deemed available at the time. The vessel reached Barrow, Alaska on September 21 and delivered a token barrel of oil to New York City on November 12. However, on the trip to Alaska the Manhattan did get stuck in the NWP at M’Clure Strait. An escort icebreaker (U.S. Coast Guard cutter Northwind) was not able to free it, while the Canadian Coast Guard’s John A. Macdonald did the job. Canada supported this trip as well as a second one in 1970 but noted that future support was not guaranteed. At any rate, U.S. interests determined that a pipeline was more economical. Ironically, the U.S. would experience Canada’s concerns over the environmental risk to the NWP when the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989. Of course, even that part of Alaska is not as harsh and remote as the Arctic.

Things are not all heat regarding the Arctic. In fact, a few prominent ocean container carriers have stated publicly that they will avoid Arctic shipping. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) along Russia from the Bering Strait to the Barents Sea is about 30% shorter than the Asia-Europe route via the Suez Canal. Depending on how much ice is in the region, the saving on transit time can be as much as 10 days off of the standard 35-day voyage via the Suez Canal. Melting polar ice is likely to increase the duration of the navigable season and yet the MSC, CMA-CGM and Hapag-Lloyd shipping lines have expressed concern over the environmental impact of using this route on a regular basis. In addition, Maersk has expressed some doubt. Certainly, as with the NWP, any accident in that part of the world is more costly to deal with when just considering accessibility of clean up vessels and equipment in the midst of spotty communications infrastructure. 

The Suez Canal.
(Photo credit: Flickr/Vyacheslav Argenbergl)

The United States is coming to this geo-political party with conspicuously fewer icebreakers than Russia. Depending on how one counts, Russia has up to 40 of them. In particular, the nuclear-powered Arktika is the world’s most powerful. Canada has 19 in its Coast Guard fleet. Even China has been traversing the Arctic Ocean in search of new resources. It has partnered with Russia on projects off its northern coast and has been assisted by Russian icebreakers. On a commercial basis China’s Cosco has made several voyages since 2013 under icebreaker escort, though mostly to supply Russian outposts.

China has even announced a “Polar Silk Road” initiative. It deployed its second domestically built research vessel/icebreaker, the Xue Long 2 (or Snow Dragon), in early 2019. The first one went into service in 1994. More are on the drawing board. With two, China equals the U.S. in terms of fully operational icebreakers. In the meantime, China’s exploration alliances with Russia and a free trade agreement with Iceland in 2013 mean that its presence in the Arctic is sure to grow.

The USCGC Healy, commissioned in 1999, is only a medium-class icebreaker. The 44-year old USCGC Polar Star is the only remaining heavy-class icebreaker in operation. Its sister vessel, USCGC Polar Sea, has been out of service since 2010. After years of expensive maintenance and upgrades to the existing fleet, the U.S. Coast Guard awarded a $746 million contract to VT Halter Marine to build the first of a series of modern heavy icebreakers. Its arrival in 2024 is projected to be the first of six (depending on future budget realities).

(Photo credit: Flickr/Greenpeace UK)

Icebreakers do not just cut a channel in the ice that stays open for days on end. This is not like cutting a channel  through a snowy mountain to manage run-off. The problem is that the ice is floating. Soon after the channel is cut the giant plates of ice will crash back into each other with a tangle of upended cleaves that make the channel even more difficult to traverse. Also, the steadily melting polar ice means that there are more ice floes around, which adds to unpredictability. The transition from a permanent ice cap to ice-free waters has been underway for decades and it will continue for decades more. Icebreakers need to escort commercial vessels. Do we need enough escorts to handle individual vessels on a come as you go basis or should the vessels be scheduled into convoys?

The United States is an Arctic nation thanks to Alaska. China is playing the long game. Will the U.S. think like the Arctic nation it is? If so, the American people need to think of the Arctic as its own backyard. A Monroe Doctrine for the Circumpolar North is perhaps too strong. But the nation’s elected leaders need to think about how to strengthen alliances with its other neighbors in the region.

There is no shortage of imaginative ideas for the Arctic. The reality is that the region is fragile, unpredictable and has a distinct shortage of support infrastructure along the NWP and NSR. Russia has signaled that it wants to make the NSR commercially viable and is investing in the icebreakers to make this happen. Prominent carriers are prepared to take a pass on the basis of environmental concerns. The debate continues.