Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic March 31, 2011 - 5:51 am

More Arctic shipping ups need for safety, environmental protection: top Russian official

Arctic Council slated to approve an international Arctic search and rescue plan in May

SARAH ROGERS
“The current instability in the Middle East and North Africa is a strong argument in favour of new Arctic shipping routes,” Russian official Anton Vasiliev told a polar shipping conference in Montreal March 30. (FILE PHOTO)
“The current instability in the Middle East and North Africa is a strong argument in favour of new Arctic shipping routes,” Russian official Anton Vasiliev told a polar shipping conference in Montreal March 30. (FILE PHOTO)

MONTREAL – After more than a year of negotiations, an Arctic Council task force, co-chaired by Russia and the United States, delivered an agreement in January on cooperation on air and sea search and rescue in the Arctic.

That agreement assigns legal areas of responsibility to each of the council’s eight-member nations and lays out how they will work together in the event of an Arctic emergency.

Now foreign ministers from the Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland plan to sign a legally-binding circumpolar search and rescue agreement at the Arctic Council’s May meeting in Nuuk, Greenland, Anton Vasiliev, a senior Arctic official of the Russian Federation, said March 30 at a polar shipping conference in Montreal.

“This agreement provides for a very clear definition of search and rescue, the responsibilities of Arctic states and simplified procedures of entry into zones in case of emergency. It should help for more expedient and efficient help for people in distress,” Vasiliev said.

The Arctic Council will also launch a project on prevention and response to marine oil spills in the Arctic waters.

“The possibility of oil spills, especially after the Gulf of Mexico [oil spill in 2010], is something clinging to our minds,” Vasiliev said. “And the Arctic presents very unique challenges.”

Vasiliev said cooperation among Arctic nations has led — and should continue to guide — development and decision-making because stakeholders have a common interest in the region’s future.

With oil and energy crises cropping up around the globe, opportunity is also knocking at the door of Arctic nations and their sea routes, he said.

“The current instability in the Middle East and North Africa is a strong argument in favour of new Arctic shipping routes,” he said.

“One of the practical consequences of the recent devastating earthquake in Japan and the reassessment of the role of nuclear energy in many countries will also be additional attention to the North Sea Route as a major route of hydrocarbons [crude oil] transportation.”

But opening the route to increased traffic is not cost-free, Vasiliev said of Russia’s position.

Safety and environmental protection are key, he said.

“We do not think that there are problems in the Arctic that might require military forces to be dealt with,” Vasiliev told participants at the two-day conference, organized by a U.K. group called Active Communications International.

Russia is eyeing the Northern sea route, the shipping lane that follows the Russian Arctic coast, as a throughway for fuel transport, even Arctic-sourced fuel.

Scientists say this sea route’s ice break-up has started occurring much earlier than in the Canada’s Northwest passage, giving shipping there a longer season.

In that sense, the prospect of turning the Northern sea route into a major shipping artery is no longer a possibility, but “a very practical option,” Vasiliev said.

By way of the Northern sea route, the distance from Europe to east Asia is about half the distance of the same trip via the Suez Canal.

So far this year, Atomflot, the owner of five Russian icebreakers, has had orders to escort 15 commercial vessels along the northern route, compared to only two orders in 2020.

To prepare for the rush, Russia is now investing in infrastructure, communications, search and rescue tools and new generation ice-breakers, said Vasiliev, who works for the nations’s department of foreign affairs.

Russia is also drafting a law around the usage of the sea route which will be the basis for future shipping regulations.

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