Arctic Shipping Remains a Distant Dream For Now, Canada’s Transport Minister Says

It's not always about the economy, says Raitt
March 26, 2014 Updated: March 26, 2014

WASHINGTON—The centuries-old dream of shipping through the Northwest Passage will remain mostly illusory for the foreseeable future, Canada’s transport minister indicated Tuesday in a blunt assessment of the challenges ahead.

During an appearance in Washington, Lisa Raitt played down expectations that the Arctic is on the cusp of becoming an international shipping hub because of climate change.

She offered a list of concerns she’s heard from the shipping industry, including from insurance companies—the ones Raitt said are really calling the shots when it comes to what’s allowed to pass through the area.

The obstacles include shallow passes and a lack of navigational markers, she said. The prospect of having a shipment stuck up there would wipe out any potential time-savings offered by the shorter intercontinental route.

And then there’s the frightening prospect of oil spills.

“I don’t see it happening right now,” Raitt said in a lengthy, freewheeling question-and-answer session at the Canadian American Business Council.

“I’m passionate about it. But I don’t think it’s a panacea, and I don’t think the Panama Canal or the Suez Canal … have any worries of competition from the Northwest Passage right now.”

The delay’s not necessarily a bad thing, she said. Policy-makers now have time to prepare all the safety protocols necessary to protect the pristine region from spills. Raitt said she’s looking forward to the release of a report this fall with recommendations on shipping north of the 60th parallel.

“I can tell you—one oil spill or accident in the Arctic is one visual you do not want to have in this world at all,” she said.

“It’s not just always about the economy. I can’t believe I said that as a Conservative. But it’s not always about the economy. You’ve got to balance it out with what’s happening in terms of safety, and the environment too.”

Successive Canadian governments, especially the current one, have pointed to an impending burst of Arctic activity as a source of national pride. There have even been differences of opinion with other countries, including the U.S., about who would have sovereignty over the bustling new shipping routes.

For now, Raitt said, it’s baby steps. 

She noted that a coal shipment made it through the region faster than expected last year. She said Canadian officials watched that ship like hawks, wary of any possible accident. Otherwise, most of the shipping in the region consists of north-south trips by supply ships, she said.

‘A good balance’

Raitt appears to understand the file well, said John Higginbotham, a former Canadian diplomat who focuses on the Arctic at Carleton University’s Centre for International Governance Innovation.

“I think she’s struck a good balance between realism and caution,” Higginbotham said. “She’s very well-qualified to speak on this topic, given her ports background (as head of the Toronto port authority).”

But the challenges facing Arctic shipping don’t make it impossible, he added, citing last year’s coal shipment as evidence that insurers can come onside, and that safe shipments can indeed be achieved.

Whether it happens will depend on two things: the extent of climate change, and government policy, he said. The feds would need to invest in search-and-rescue, harbours of refuge, oil-spill mitigation, communications and navigational aids, he added.

For now, Russia appears to have jumped out ahead in developing its Arctic shipping capacity, Higginbotham said, although it’s commonly believed shipping there would be much easier than through Canada’s northern archipelago.

Meanwhile, government officials confirm that a Russian delegation is attending a meeting in Yellowknife this week held by the Arctic Council, even though the council includes some of Russia’s harshest critics, such as the United States.

A spokeswoman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who heads the Arctic Council, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper has instructed officials to review all bilateral relations with Russia.

But Amanda Gordon says the work of the Arctic Council will continue as planned for now.
In Europe this week, Harper questioned the mentality of a government that says Canada has no right to speak out against Russia’s moves against Ukraine. 

Meanwhile, government officials confirm that a Russian delegation is attending a meeting in Yellowknife this week held by the Arctic Council, even though the council includes some of Russia’s harshest critics, such as the United States. 

A spokeswoman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who heads the Arctic Council, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper has instructed officials to review all bilateral relations with Russia. 

But Amanda Gordon says the work of the Arctic Council will continue as planned for now. 

In Europe this week, Harper questioned the mentality of a government that says Canada has no right to speak out against Russia’s moves against Ukraine.