In Newfoundland, a glimpse of the Arctic's past and future

For five hundred years, the island of Newfoundland was known for its seemingly infinite cod stocks. The confluence of the warm Gulf Stream and the frigid Labrador Current create nutrient-rich waters in the North Atlantic that allow cod to grow to a size of 200 pounds. An Italian merchant’s letter in 1497 famously described the abundance of scaly creatures: “the sea there is full of fish that can be taken not only with nets but with fishing-baskets.” A century later, one English skipper wrote that the waters were still “so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.”

But in 1992, exactly five hundred years after Christopher Columbus voyaged to the New World, generations of fishing came to a sudden halt. Trawlers from Spain, the Soviet Union, and numerous other countries had devastated cod stocks, which were commercially extinct and would need decades to recover. So the Canadian government enacted a cod fishing moratorium. Only now are the cod starting to creep back in bigger numbers into the Grand Banks. The resulting economic collapse of the 1990’s upended entire fishing villages, called outport communities. Many of the 30,000 Newfoundlanders who were put out of work moved west across Canada to find work in the oil sands industry.

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A rusty sign at Signal Hill describing the history of the cod fishing industry.

Some Newfoundlanders, however, decided to stay and work in the oil industry emerging on their own island. Reserves amounting to 884 million barrels (less than 1% of what the Arctic is estimated to contain) had been discovered offshore in 1979 in the seabed underneath the same waters once filled with cod. Two years before the moratorium was put in place, construction had commenced on the Hibernia platform. It extracted its first barrel of oil seven years later, breathing new life (and carbon dioxide emissions) into the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Today, the province is moving ahead with developing its oil and gas industry. The future looked promising in 2013, when oil prices were high and a consortium led by ExxonMobil decided to develop another oil field offshore Newfoundland, called Hebron. Yet as preparations for next year’s start of production proceed, the collapse in the price of oil has rendered the province’s economic future once again precarious.

Watching Hebron emerge from the water

A couple of weeks ago, I was part of a tour group that had the chance to see the massive structure being built close to shore to exploit the Hebron oil field, located in the North Atlantic Ocean some 350 kilometers southeast of St. John’s. The structure is being built in two parts: the topsides, which sits above sea level, and the gravity-based structure, which will be sunk onto the seafloor during installation. A three-minute time-lapse captures the construction that’s taken place so far.

Like Hibernia, the stand-alone gravity-based structure that forms the concrete core of the Hebron project is designed to withstand sea ice and icebergs, for the offshore oil fields are located in what’s known as “iceberg alley.” It was in these very waters that an iceberg struck the ill-fated Titanic on April 15, 1912. (Aside: We all know the Titanic sank, but here’s what may have happened to the iceberg that struck it.) Unfortunately for the Titanic, the ship did not have the toothed walls of Hibernia or the “flowery” walls of Hebron to ward off ice.

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The topsides of Hebron being constructed at the Bull Arm facility in Newfoundland.
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The gravity-based structure, which will be installed onto the seafloor.

I asked our guide what would happen if the Hebron were at risk of colliding with an iceberg. She explained, “We have salt water cowboys. They’ll go up in boats and lasso the iceberg out of the way if anything imminently threatened the structure.” Who knows, maybe even a lassoed iceberg will be melted down and turned into the water used in the locally brewed Iceberg beer.

The Hebron project has a $14 billion capital cost and the oil field is estimated to have some 700 million barrels of oil. The project’s estimated 30-year lifespan may seem like a decent enough time to turn a profit for an oil corporation, which tends to think in 40-year timespans. But the current calculus for Hebron, which is full of heavy crude, does not look good. Canadian heavy crude sits around $15 a barrel at present. That means that if all 700 million barrels were sold today, even the costs of construction would not be covered.

ExxonMobil is undoubtedly hoping that the price of oil comes back up. But even if the corporation goes into the red at Newfoundland, the undertaking won’t be a lost cause. The expertise gained by operating in the North Atlantic’s icy waters will help inform Arctic drilling, as Forbes’ journalist Christopher Helman wrote in 2013. Concrete, gravity-based structures such as Hibernia are “crucial to the exploitation of oil and gas deposits in ever more hostile environments,” a report from the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) explains. Additionally, ExxonMobil was working with Rosneft in Russia to develop the offshore Universitetskaya oil well until sanctions forced its withdrawal in late 2014.

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The fishing village of Quidi Vici just outside St. John’s, home to the brewers of beer made out of 25,000-year-old icebergs.

When the well runs dry

After the Hebron field has run dry, one member of our tour asked our guide what will happen when the platform is no longer needed.

“If it needs to be removed it can be. It depends on provincial regulations. But most likely, it will be abandoned,” she explained matter-of-factly. Corporate visions of an oil rig providing a post-apocalyptic playground for fish and coral in its rusty afterlife hung on her last sentence. A lot has been written on whether or not this is legal. But at the very least, abandonment following decommissioning is a largely accepted practice now. As the number of disused oil platforms grows and companies just leave them behind, the most governments can really do is levy fines.

So oil companies come in, extract the oil, and leave their industrial waste behind. This cycle is particularly nefarious in remote regions like the Arctic or the offshore, where it is cheaper for companies to drop everything and run even if fines have to be paid. There aren’t many people around to cry foul since oil rigs on the frontier, whether on or offshore, are typically out of sight, out of mind.

The exception, of course, is when things go wrong and when oil rigs wash up on shore. That is exactly what happened on a picturesque Scottish surfing beach in early August. On the other side of the North Atlantic from Newfoundland in the economically challenged North Sea, surfers, curious onlookers, and sheep came face-to-face with one of the alien structures ramming into the Isle of Lewis. There was no tour guide to tell the gawking public about the rig. Everything was unplanned. The towline pulling the 17,000-ton rig, called “Transocean Winner,” allegedly from Norway to Malta, had snapped. Laughably, the rig’s owner, Transocean, is the very same company that owned Deepwater Horizon.

Graeme Macdonald, associate professor at the University of Warwick, shed light on the incident in Scotland at the Petrocultures conference, which I attended while in St. John’s. He called the rig’s beaching an “unannounced onshoring of an offshore behemoth.” In plainer speech, “This rig was just too damn apparent.”

While the rig has now been towed to safety, its future remains uncertain: will it be salvaged and repurposed, or might it be destined for Scotland’s watery oil platform graveyard? If Transocean Winner ends up at the bottom of the sea, this will be nothing new. In fact, as Macdonald emphasized, Shell may dump four platforms the size of the Eiffel Tower on the floor of the North Sea. Out of sight, out of mind, indeed.


What do Newfoundland and Scotland have to do with the Arctic, anyway?

Writing about Newfoundland and Scotland might seem a bit far to the south of most of the topics I normally discuss on this blog. But in many ways, Newfoundland is like a microcosm of much of the Arctic. For starters in both places, with fishing all but dried up and the oil industry uncertain, attracting cruise ships seems to be the most lucrative option. The first luxury cruise liner to transit the Northwest Passage, Crystal Serenity, just concluded its successful voyage in New York.

Many cruise ships call in both the Arctic and St. John’s. On my last day in Newfoundland’s capital, the Holland America cruise ship MS Zuiderdam had docked for a few hours on its way to New York. The vessel had started in Denmark and visited locations in Iceland and Greenland during its 17-day “Viking Passage.”

As I walked down Duckworth Street, I saw four men who looked like sailors sitting on a bench, fingers sliding fast across their phones. “Are you from the cruise ship?” I asked. They responded in the affirmative. Two were from the Philippines and two were from Indonesia. It was some of the sailors’ first time in St. John’s, but they didn’t seem all too interested in sightseeing. After all, it was just another day and another port in the footloose life of a Southeast Asian sailor plying the same waters as the Vikings a thousand years before.

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Four sailors I met in St. John’s.

Like many of their compatriots who have found work in the maritime industry, the four sailors were likely pressured to leave the Philippines and Indonesia for jobs with better wages. The irony is that they ended up earning money by coming on a ship to Newfoundland, the very place from which many were forced to leave to look for jobs elsewhere.

The trend of peripatetic Southeast Asia labor moving into the North repeats itself across the Arctic. Fairbanks, Alaska has a disproportionate number of Thai restaurants. The grocery store in Inuvik has a Filipino section, and about 65 Filipinos work in town. Nuuk, Greenland has a Filipino store too. Thais work in the canteens on Svalbard and pick cloudberries in Finland. All the while, many Northerners are moving out to find better work in the south.

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MS Zuiderdam leaving port in St. John’s, Newfoundland, bound for the bright lights of New York City.

Newfoundland and Scotland: part of the Arctic in another time and place?

Finally, Newfoundland and Scotland might actually constitute part of the Arctic depending on how – and when – the region’s boundaries are drawn. Two nights ago, I gave a talk in Ohio at the Dayton Art Institute on emerging connections and disconnections in the Arctic. Dayton might seem like an unlikely place to talk about the top of the world. But when touring their current exhibit on the Antarctic sublime, I realized how fluid conceptions of the Arctic really are.

A small image of Frederic Edwin Church’s 1861 painting, The Icebergs, accompanied a large-scale photograph of a Patagonian glacier that formed the center of one room’s display. The painting’s inspiration came from a series of sketches drawn by the artist during an expedition in 1859 chartered to St. John’s, Newfoundland to observe the icebergs that float by every year in spring.

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The Icebergs, Frederic Edwin Church, 1861

The painting was a blockbuster in its time and even held its own more than a century later. When the work, called Church’s “Arctic masterpiece,” was sold in 1979, it fetched $2.5 million – the highest price that had ever been paid for an American painting. At the Dayton Art Institute, an accompanying description for the painting quoted a reverend who wrote upon seeing the painting for the first time in 1861:

“Through this covered dark wood-work, as through an open window, we looked at once, nearly 2,000 miles away – to Labrador!”

As I read those comments, I thought back to my time in St. John’s. Basking in the warm August temperatures, with grass and wildflowers covering the craggy cliffs and nary an iceberg in sight, I never really felt like I was in the Arctic. One person I met from there said no, they don’t think of St. John’s as being within the Arctic. But here was a painting made 150 years ago by an artist who went to St. John’s with the express purpose of seeing icebergs, which today we pretty much equate with the Arctic. And the Dallas Museum of Art, where the painting is permanently displayed, explains, “The Icebergs was the first large and definitive painting of the arctic regions in the nineteenth century.”

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Sunrise from Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. It doesn’t much resemble popular conceptions of the Arctic at this time of year. Photo: Mia Bennett

So in some sense, St. John’s becomes a part of the Arctic for the three months out of the year when the frozen formations float by after crashing into the sea and then meandering down from the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Scotland: The Arctic of the Future?

If Newfoundland was part of the Arctic of the past, perhaps Scotland is the Arctic of the future. If the country one day separates from the rest of the United Kingdom and has to find a new geopolitical identity, it could reposition itself as an Arctic nation much like its northern neighbors of the Faroe Islands and Norway. Already, the British Antarctic Survey includes the Shetland Islands within its map of the Arctic. A century from now, Aberdeen could transform into a hub for Arctic industry, while the rare Scottish wild cat could be considered an endangered Arctic species, if it survives for that long.

And perhaps drowned and forsaken offshore oil rigs could become Arctic tourism destinations in their own right for all the ruin-obsessed sightseers out there – a watery Detroit, if you will. Gravity-based structures will likely be used in much of the Arctic if drilling occurs there, and the most environmentally way to decommission them, according to the OGP, is to simply leave them in place. Going to the Arctic when all the icebergs have melted, then, might not be about seeing some of the earth’s last untouched wilderness, but about seeing skeletons of an industrial past.

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Paint peeling off the wall of an old bar in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
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An abandoned offshore oil platform in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. Photo: Mia Bennett

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