Monday, June 17, 2013

The Arctic Is Open For Business

Adm. Gary Roughead (USN Ret.) spoke at WAC NorCal about the opening of the Arctic Ocean to exploration and commercialization.  You don't have to believe in anthropogenic global warming to know that new sealanes open up some pretty hard-to-reach areas (sort of like that corner of your bathroom, only colder).  My synopsis of his talk will include my usual pithy observations.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska is the Arctic's only deepwater port.  That gives the US a huge strategic advantage.  It is separated from the mainland of North America by water, so its strategic value does not lie in any land connections to transportation infrastructure that can facilitate trade.  It is probably the best location right now for stationing emergency crews that will be on call in the event any trans-Arctic ships issue distress calls.  Communication is very difficult above 74 degrees north latitude, so ships and drill platforms will have to be hardened to withstand Arctic conditions.  The city of Unalaska's development plan for the port runs through 2019 but doesn't include any expansion plans to accommodate oil exploration ships or rigs.  Those assets will have to go elsewhere, like the Valdez Marine Terminal.  The bottom line is that Alaska can expect a major infrastructure boom to support the US's Arctic presence.  Shipbuilders can also expect a small boom in special orders for Arctic oil platforms and service ships with de-icing capabilities, special ventilation systems, and other features.

I knew about methane hydrates before I heard Adm. Roughead talk.  It's frozen natural gas, folks.  There's plenty of it in the Arctic.  Melting permafrost triggers the release of melting methane hydrates into the atmosphere.  It's too bad all that melting is disrupting built-up infrastructure and possibly contributing to global warming.  Maybe we can counter it by convincing Alaskans not to pass so much gas themselves.  Nah, forget it.

The real solution to Arctic problems will be found in cooperation from the Arctic nations.  The Arctic Council gathers those nations that border the Arctic and those whose ships transit the region.  The International Maritime Organization is developing a Polar Code for ship safety.  The US is jeopardizing its ability to adjudicate any sovereign claims to its energy-rich Arctic continental shelf by not being a signatory to  the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  American critics who object to the treaty are clueless about the leverage we're forgoing.  America's cluelessness continues with our inability to deploy icebreakers.  The US Coast Guard has one icebreaking vessel available and one more coming on line, while Russia has 43 in its national fleet.  I think the other Arctic Council nations are laughing at us.

The Admiral's talk helps me put recent news in context.  Exxon Mobil and Rosneft have agreed to operate an arctic research center.  They've made several joint agreements in recent years, so this points to an obvious trend of Russian-American cooperation in opening the Arctic.  They need to think about oil spill responses before they drill.  Oil spills behave differently in icy waters.  Adm. Roughead noted that Prudhoe Bay oil throughput is declining and the bay will need further infrastructure development to extend its life, probably requiring the reconstitution of much of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  Relax, folks, Exxon Mobil and Rosneft will likely be first in line with bids for that work.

Here's my suggestion for further cooperation.  USPACOM's RIMPAC brings many navies together for joint maneuvers.  I'd like to see an Arctic version of RIMPAC with US, Russian, and Canadian forces working together on icebreaking and rescue missions.  No country can do this alone.