GUEST COMMENTARY: Opportunities, challenges for Alaska as Northern Sea Route opens

  • The Russian icebreaking containership Sevmorput loading containers of Russian Far East fish products for export to Europe on Aug. 26 at the Port of Petropavlavsk-Kamchatski. (Photo/Paul Fuhs)

I took this picture on Aug. 26 at the port of Petropavlavsk-Kamchatski. This is the Russian icebreaking containership Sevmorput loading containers of Russian Far East fish products for export to Europe.

The fact that the containers are from Maersk Shipping Lines, the largest shipper in the world, is testament that the Northern Sea Route is developing into a true world shipping route.

This presents both opportunities and challenges for Alaska and we need to manage both of these unless we want to be left behind.

On the opportunity side is the potential for direct shipments to Europe for Alaskan products, from fish to timber to minerals. This could be especially beneficial to Alaska’s fishing industry that sells many of its products into the European market. It also represents a major opportunity for a container trans-shipment hub and fueling port such as The Aleut Corp. has proposed at Adak.

On the challenge side is the risk of potential vessel casualties and pollution of Arctic waters. This clearly calls for strong prevention and response measures in a bilateral approach with Russia, which shares our common heritage of Arctic oceans.

Ocean circulation patterns in the Arctic indicate that an incident anywhere could be carried across the entire Arctic.

Fortunately, a public/private partnership, the Marine Exchange of Alaska, in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of Alaska has developed the most comprehensive prevention program in the world.

This consists of 135 receiving stations throughout the coast of Alaska that receive the location data of vessels transmitted by the vessel’s AIS (automated identification system) transmitter. Vessel AIS transponder systems are required by international law.

This data is monitored 24/7 by specialists of the Exchange, ensuring fidelity to offshore routing measures, identifying vessels in distress and nearby vessels who could respond, transmitting real time weather data and other safety information to the vessels via AIS.

However, not all vessels are required to follow these safety measures, which points to the need for cooperation with Russia in protecting our Arctic waters, either through bilateral regulations or through proposals to the International Maritime Organization.

There is currently an effort by Russian Far East regional governments and Alaskans to form the Bering Pacific Arctic Council, similar to the Barents Council, which can promote and oversee Arctic shipping prevention measures. Safe shipping measures are also supported by the Arctic shipping members of the Arctic Economic Council, so this should be a realizable goal.

These measures will be necessary to answer critic’s consistent opposition to any development in the Arctic, no matter how misguided. A recent example of this was French President Macron’s announcement during the recent G-7 meeting in Biarritz, France, calling for no shipping the Arctic.

He claimed this was because the faster, ice free route was the “consequence of our past irresponsibility.” Ironically, the vessels using the Suez or Panama canal routes instead of the Northern Sea Route will burn much more fuel and produce subsequent increased CO2 emissions.

The French shipper CMA CGM then dutifully said it wouldn’t use the route, at the same time announcing conversion of many of its vessels to LNG fuel. Because LNG wouldn’t cause any pollution in the case of a vessel casualty and is an ideal fuel for Arctic shipping, it proves once again that once you get on the politically correct posturing train, the next station you inevitably arrive at is Stupid.

And let’s not forget that Arctic LNG shipping as the Russians have developed may be the method we use to commercialize our North Slope gas reserves if a pipeline cannot be financed.

Alaska and our Arctic neighbors can’t afford to let others who don’t live here and don’t understand us, or our environment, set the agenda for our future. We have to do that for ourselves. We have the tools. We just need to use them.

Paul Fuhs is President Emeritus of the Marine Exchange of Alaska, and a consultant on Arctic port development. He was recently named as the US Coordinator of the Bering Pacific Arctic Council Working Group. He can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
10/02/2019 - 9:40am