By Brian Dunn

Has the Arctic been oversold? That was the topic of a presentation given during the 8th Artic Shipping Summit in Montreal by Mikå Mered, Managing Partner, Polarisk Group, London, UK. Is the Arctic still part of a serious discussion or have people lost interest, he wondered as he threw out some figures at the summit organized by ACI Communications International, also of London.

The Northern Sea Route hit its peak in 2013 with 71 transits, but declined to 31 in 2014 and only 18 last year, although cargo shipments are on the rise due to domestic shipments in Russia, he noted. But things may soon change. “Japan has become very interested in the Arctic in the last five years and wants to sign some sort of agreement with Russia. And South Korea has a Memorandum of Understanding with Finland, Russia and Norway for Arctic sea routes.”

Noting that China has signed $488 billion worth of contracts since 2010 related to Arctic investments, Mr. Mered remarked that the Chinese talk down their Arctic involvement whenever they attend Western conferences, but talk them up at home. And since China can’t beat the Superpowers using traditional methods, including military might, it plans to compete with them in the Arctic, Antarctic and in outer space, he added.

But there are conflicting development strategies in the Arctic, between federal, provincial and state governments in Canada and the U.S., while Norway and Sweden get bad press whenever they venture into the area. And every time there is more activity in the Arctic, the popularity of Europe’s Green Party rises. “All of the above applies to Russia. Finland has a lot of potential, but is hampered by Russian sanctions. Iceland is developing tourism infrastructure, the golden goose of the Arctic,” said Mr. Mered. “By 2035, the world’s population is expected to be between 8 and 9 billion, GDP will triple and energy demand is expected to increase by 37 per cent. If there’s a decrease in GDP growth, it could lead to instability and wars. To avoid that, we need to continue to develop the Arctic.”

The impact of low oil prices on offshore drilling projects has been minimal, with most going forward. It’s only the non-priority projects that have been postponed. And between now and 2030, most infrastructure projects such as ports and airports will also go forward, the Arctic specialist concluded.

There aren’t a lot vessels being designed for northern operations and a lot of design uncertainty can lead to over-design which is costly and could impact mining activities, especially in a low commodity price environment. That is one of the challenges facing the National Research Council (NRC) which made a presentation on R&D to Support Arctic Design and Operations by Anne Barker, Arctic Program Leader at NRC. Design and performance are affected by propeller/ice interaction and power and propulsion issues. NRC is developing tools to measure pressure ice conditions to help a vessel decide whether to stay put and wait until the pressure dissipates or attempt to slowly push through. A lot would depend if the vessel has some time leeway or if it must respond to an emergency. The Council is also conducting field investigations of multiyear ice as it knows about its thickness, but doesn’t know its strength, especially near the bottom of the ice.

Another concern is the performance of personal protection equipment since most of it is designed for two-hour protection, which could result in someone dying from exposure. NRC is designing equipment that can last up to two days. Survival vessels are also being expanded to carry up to 50 passengers from the current 16 for up to two weeks.

Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) weighed in with a presentation on responsible marine transportation for the Arctic, and is pursuing international cooperation through the Arctic Council. CCG operates seven icebreakers in the Arctic and one of its priorities is to strengthen its icebreaking capacities for an extended Arctic season, noted Julie Gascon, Assistant Commissioner, Central and Arctic Region for CCG. “With the mild winters of the last two years, the Arctic region is opening earlier and closing later, the same as the St. Lawrence. It’s no longer such a seasonal activity. Scientific research ships constantly require our services, along with commercial vessels.”

Another challenge facing CCG and its limited resources is that with increased traffic from non-Arctic states, how will it manage internal waters, including the Northwest Passage? CCG is spearheading the move to establish Northern Marine Transportation Corridors, routes where navigation aids and icebreaking are prioritized, to enhance navigation safety. Between 2011 and 2013, the latest figures available, 77 per cent of marine traffic, 87.3 per cent of escorts provided, and 57.5 per cent of search and rescue incidents occurred within five nautical miles from existing corridors.

CCG is also working with its international partners to share expertise to advance the “corridors” framework internationally. One of the biggest concerns for all Arctic countries is how to meet the challenge of oil spills from increased shipping in the region which was addressed by Petter Meier, Deputy Director General, Norwegian Ministry of Transport Communications. “We don’t know how to cope with oil spills in icy waters, we don’t know how the oil behaves under such cold conditions. For instance, in colder water temperatures, there may be fewer organisms to break down the oil through microbial degradation. Oil could get trapped in ice and could potentially be trapped there for years. It is therefore of paramount importance that we prevent oil spills to the extent possible. And that we have a preparedness and response system capable of preventing and mitigating negative environmental effects.”

Norway has tackled the potential problem by moving risk traffic further away from the coast through a traffic separation scheme. This gives authorities more time to respond to incidents and to activate emergency towing and oil spill response procedures. “We have established a vessel traffic service close to the Russian border in the North. This has enabled us to monitor tanker traffic and other risk traffic in our Arctic waters, as well as in the entire Norwegian Exclusive Economic Zone. If anomalies are detected, the traffic service provides guidance to ships and may organize assistance if needed.”

In 2013, Norway introduced a mandatory ship reporting system in the Barents Sea, called “the Barents SRS,” developed jointly with Russia and is approved by the International Maritime Organization. The system ensures communications and information exchanges between the coastal states and the ships operating in the area. “None of the Arctic states have the capacity to handle a large oil spill in the High North alone. But if we cooperate we will be in a far better position to succeed. It is necessary to pool our resources and competence to meet and handle increased activity.”

Another presentation by David Miller, CEO, WWF Canada and former mayor of Toronto, looked at Phasing Out Heavy Fuel Oil and Alternative Options for Arctic Shipping. “Heavy fuel oil is a real threat. The Liberal government is going to introduce carbon changes. If northern communities feel they’re part of the protection process, it will be long lasting compared to a policy coming from Ottawa. The marine area is like their grocery store. It is more important than caribou, so to them, an oil spill would be a disaster.” An oil spill from a blowout from oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea could drift onto Russian shores, while a spill of 21,000 barrels could move west for 13 weeks to reach Alaska, Mr. Miller pointed out.

“The preferred alternative to heavy fuel oil is LNG which offers an 18 per cent reduction in GHG and dissipates quicker after a spill. But the cost of LNG is too high. However, the return on investment is six years, assuming fuel (oil) prices rise. The long-term solution is to switch to diesel until the shipping industry can find a way to convert to LNG.”

The cruise ship Crystal Affinity is using LNG for its planned voyage through the Northwest Passage this summer, while (Groupe Desgagnés subsidiary) Petro-Nav is building LNG-powered ships for the St. Lawrence, noted Mr. Miller. “Baffinland (Iron Mines Corporation) is looking at using LNG ships. It’s not considering whether to use LNG, but how. It will require cooperation between industry and government and associations like ours.”

The Polar Code, which comes into force Jan 1, 2017, generated a lot of interest at the summit. It is meant to supplement existing regulations and there was a lot of give and take in creating it, according to Peter Pamel, Partner, Borden Ladner Gervais. The Code consists of two parts. One deals with safety and the other with pollution prevention. It covers ship design and construction, designation of a Polar Class classification and training of crew for Arctic navigation and vessel operations. “Transport Canada and the Coast Guard are looking to review their existing Arctic-specific regulations to harmonize them with the Polar Code regulations,” said Mr. Pamel.

Transport Canada’s Tanker Safety Export Panel has made a number of recommendations concerning the Northern Marine Transportation Corridors. It suggests targeted investments for prevention measures including aids to navigation, mapping and charting, ice navigations systems and ice navigator requirements. In terms of preparedness and response, the Panel recommends the implementation of an Arctic-specific Spill Emergency Plan prepared by the shipping industry, alternative response measures, examination of better ways to authorize field testing related to spill response, while the government should closely monitor changing risk factors in the Arctic.

Mr. Pamel expects the Polar Code will be adopted without objection and will be consistent with amendments to Canadian regulations. It should also have little impact on northern resupply shipping “as the safety provisions are risk-based and will only apply to SOLAS (safety of life at sea) certified vessels and the pollution prevention requirements are similar to those already in place in Canada. It will have some impact for vessels available for occasional voyages in polar waters such as the Churchill grain trade.”

In a question and answer session after his presentation, Mr. Pamel noted the tanker safety panel debated whether the Arctic should be a pilot-required zone funded by users similar to the St. Lawrence. “But they have volume there (on the St. Lawrence), so I don’t see a requirement for the Arctic in the foreseeable future.” He also suggested there is a better chance of “extracting” money from the government if you identify where the money is needed rather that just saying the Arctic in general. “It’s similar to hospitals. They tend to get more donations if they specify a need like a new MRI machine instead of for the hospital itself.

Northern shippers such as NEAS and Desgagnés are doing their own investments. The government of Nunavut lost six weeks of shipping last season because of a lack of icebreakers. It’s time to open the wallet.”

The health of seafarers was discussed during a session by PRAXES Medical Group, a Halifax-based telemedicine company that provides 24-hour medical advice by phone to the Canadian navy, coast guard, offshore oil and gas seismic vessels and fishing vessels among others. “We basically provide emergency medical service to any ship in distress,” explained Dr. John Ross, noting that providing the same level of medical care on board a vessel as on land as stipulated by the Maritime Labour Convention in 2006, is a bit of a stretch when operating in places like the Arctic.

Some of the challenges to providing on-board medical care are that medical examinations for crews are not standard between countries, medical records are not available on board vessels and there is little, if any, screening for mental health issues. “The First officer has usually taken a basic medical course, but tends to forget the training over time. Initial training is important, but it helps to have a refresher course. And a well-stocked medical kit may be outdated. Catching lower level problems on board early is essential.”

Dr. Ross cited a situation where PRAXES received a call from an icebreaker after a crew member was believed to have suffered a stroke. After a consultation, it turned out to be Bell’s Palsy, a form of temporary facial paralysis, eliminating the need for an emergency medevac and a cost savings of about $100,000. “The most common calls we get are related to mental health issues. Some recommendations to improve medical care on board Arctic ships include specific pre-deployment screening questions in addition to a seafarer’s medical exam, specific mental health screening, medical records accessible to a telemed physician, have a well thought out medical kit and have a logistics plan for on board treatment or for a medevac if necessary.”