Melting Arctic easing access to fossil fuels

HOUSTON — More direct routes may be opening up in the Arctic, as melting ice has made previously unnavigable routes a growing possibility for large ships, including tankers carrying oil and gas, an expert said Wednesday at the Third Houston Shipping and Offshore Conference.

“The ice is melting and a new ocean is opening up,” said Johan Vold, managing director of the Energy Policy Foundation of Norway and a former executive at Royal Dutch Shell and Statoil.

The conference was held at the Houstonian Hotel and covered a range of issues related to energy transportation.

Vold said that sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is melting much faster than scientists had expected, with older and thicker multiyear ice being replaced by thinner first-year ice that is easier for vessels to break. Also, the Arctic reserves could contain huge sources of future energy, as global warming helps make the fuel more accessible, Vold said.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and as much as 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves.

“The paradox is that as the ice melts, we have more access to the resources that may actually emit more carbon dioxide,” Vold said.

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Melting ice opens up the possibility of more direct routes through the Arctic that could shave off as much as 40 percent of transportation time, Vold said. For instance, melting ice has opened the Northeast Passage,which stretches from the Barents Sea in Northern Europe to the Bering Strait along the coast of Siberia. Compared to the southern route, which passes through the Suez Canal, it nearly halves the distance to Japan, whose appetite for liquefied natural gas has grown with the post-Fukushima move away from nuclear power.

However, these routes would only be available for limited summer periods, making them less attractive for the majority of container ships, which require predictable trading routes year round, Vold said.

“It will take some time before it becomes competitive, as the main trading patterns are in the southern rim,” Vold said.

The trade routes might not be used widely until 2050, Vold said, noting that only 46 ships made it through Arctic routes last year.

As routes open, there are many issues that will require international cooperation, including the jurisdiction of rescue operations, environmental and pollution issues and ensuring that the concerns of native Arctic communities are protected.

Under international law, no country owns the Arctic. The ocean is governed by the United Nations Law of the Sea treaty, ratified by more than 160 nations in 1982. The United States has not signed the treaty but acknowledges as the prevailing law. The five surrounding Arctic nations — the United States, Canada, Denmark via Greenland, Norway and Russia — have jurisdiction 200 miles offshore from their respective coasts.

Environmental groups, energy industry representatives and researchers have called for federal standards to ensure safe Arctic drilling.

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