From floating piano concerts to new icebreakers launching, a lot is going on in the Arctic lately.
On June 16, Russia launched the world’s largest nuclear icebreaker, Arktika, in St. Petersburg. It’s approximately two football fields long and can punch through ice thirteen feet deep. A video from Russia Today documents its maiden voyage into the Baltic Sea:
The reason the ship looks a little odd is because the 2,400-ton superstructure with cabins for 75 crewmembers will be placed into position following the launch, according to PortNews. Once this is complete, the Russian website Hi-News reports that Arktika “will not have to stand idly without business. Arktika will come to the assistance of tankers carrying raw materials from Yamal and other northern resource deposits to the East, in accordance with the economic cooperation framework framework with the governments of the Asian-Pacific region.” In other words, Arktika’s primary role will be to guide ships transporting oil and gas resources from the Russian offshore to Asia via the Northern Sea Route.
NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly traveled to St. Petersburg to watch the launch. She spoke with Sergey Kiryenko, head of Russia’s nuclear energy agency, on the VIP platform of the docks. He explained to her in Russian, “Asia is developing fast. And if ships can cut through the Arctic, they can get from Asia to Europe in a week. Russia stands to profit hugely as previously frozen waters melt. And that helps explain why when its economy is in crisis, Russia is prepared to spend upwards of a billion dollars on a supersized icebreaker.”
So while some American media and commentators see militaristic overtones in the launch of Arktika, economic imperatives are also motivating Russia’s construction of these floating megastructures. Arktika is just the first of its kind. Two more similar icebreakers will be built under Project 22220 at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg for commissioning in 2019 and 2020. By that year, the U.S. might just be getting started with constructing a new icebreaker.
In contrast to the largely commercial role of Arktika, Russia, with a tad less fanfare, launched a new, diesel-electric military icebreaker, Ilya Muromets, earlier in June. The vessel is Russia’s first new military icebreaker in 45 years. While Russian state-owned company Rosatomflot will operate Arktika, the Russian Navy will operate Ilya Muromets, named after the legendary medieval warrior. A decision on building more icebreakers like Ilya will be made later this year. Ilya Muromets’ launch can be watched here:
The top comment on this YouTube video? “Выражаем огромную благорданость за санкции)))))))))))”, or “We express our deep thanks for sanctions,” representing a view within Russia that sanctions have actually stimulated homegrown construction of military and commercial icebreakers like Arktika and Ilya Muromets.
Concert on ice
Amidst all the industrial ribbon cutting and icebreaking, Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi recently performed a piece he composed called “Elegy for the Arctic” on a floating platform in the icy green waters off Svalbard. Calving ice from the Wahlenbergbreen glacier creaked, cracked, and bubbled over the musician’s melancholy piano chords. The concert, arranged by Greenpeace, formed part of its campaign to “save the Arctic.”
The environmental non-profit’s efforts to prevent oil and gas drilling in the region have lately benefited from a drop in oil prices, which have stymied the oil majors from developing resources in the region. Yet even though companies like Shell and ExxonMobil have withdrawn from Arctic exploration in recent years, they still have their eyes on the long-term prize of offshore oil.
Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips all wrote letters to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management last week during its consultation period for the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil & Gas Leasing Program. Shell expressed, “We continue to believe offshore Alaska and the broader Arctic have strong exploration potential, and that these areas could ultimately be important sources of energy.” Statoil’s letter argues, “Statoil believes that the three proposed Alaska OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) lease sales should be maintained without further access restrictions.”
Their comments echoed those expressed in a letter by a number of prominent political officials, including President Bill Clinton’s former secretary of defense and the supreme Allied commander of NATO. The letter states, “Arctic offshore energy development will occur, whether or not the U.S. participates, as other countries pursue the Arctic’s large energy resources to meet long-term energy needs,” right before mentioning Russia and China’s Arctic activities in a wary tone. “Even China, calling itself a “near-Arctic” state, has been building new icebreakers, encouraging Chinese shipping companies to use Arctic sea routes, and making resource-oriented investments in Arctic countries,” the letter notes.
Russia and China, however, aren’t the only ones developing the Arctic. Just a couple of hundred miles from the Greenpeace piano performance off Svalbard, Norway is developing its Goliat offshore oil field, which is the northernmost in the world. And across the Arctic, Canada is completing a highway to the Beaufort Sea, which will facilitate year-round access to the immense oil and gas reserves there. But saying that Norway or Canada are developing their northern infrastructure and natural resources doesn’t cause enough of a scare to pressure BOEM into going ahead with its lease sale than mentioning Russia and China. So if claims are going to be made that the removal of the Alaskan offshore from the leasing sale would mean that America is falling behind in the Arctic, it’s worth being clear that the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon are not the only ones ahead of it in the game – and for that reason, the Arctic is not going to fall into their control anytime soon.