Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Staking Arctic Claims

Ambitious fleets of nuclear-powered Polar class icebreakers and submarines. Huge Arctic oil and gas drilling platforms. Floating nuclear reactors. Aggressive undersea mapping. Big investments in ports, rescue stations and other infrastructure.

Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership Russia is sparing no expense to exploit the Arctic and its resources. As the Star’s Paul Watson has just reported from Murmansk, Moscow is pumping billions into its northern cities and resources. It is tapping deeply into the region’s rich energy and mineral potential. And it has visions of developing its Northern Sea Route (or Northeast Passage) to speed shipping between Europe and Asia as global warming melts the polar ice.

By Canadian standards, this Arctic gold rush is daunting in its scope. Granted, Russia has invested heavily there for the better part of a century, for only a modest payout so far. And there’s growing concern about damaging the fragile Arctic ecosystem. But as the northern regions open to science, commerce and tourism, Moscow clearly aims to steal a march on the rest of the world.

All of which confirms the wisdom of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s moves to modestly firm up Canada’s own presence in the north by investing in its politics, people and infrastructure.

Harper has made Arctic sovereignty a priority. Through the Arctic Council that includes the U.S., 

Russia and other countries, he has committed Canada to a search-and-rescue role in a plane crash or other accident, and to drawing up protocols for averting and coping with offshore oil spills. Ottawa is mapping our undersea claims. There are plans to refurbish a deepwater port at Nanisivik on Baffin Island, and there’s a new military training centre at Resolute Bay.

Harper has also earmarked $4 billion for a three-season polar class icebreaker to navigate our own Northwest Passage, and for Arctic patrol vessels with helicopter pads and modest icebreaking capacity. There have been calls, too, for Ottawa to base new-generation rescue aircraft or helicopters in the region. And to upgrade airstrips.

All this adds up to a relatively modest down payment on a better foothold in the region. It will be some years yet before new Canadian ships ply the Arctic waters. And our regulators are rightly refusing to issue offshore drilling permits unless spills can be contained. But Ottawa is staking a bolder Arctic claim on behalf of future generations. It’s the forward-looking thing to do.

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