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More ship accidents in store?
Two arrested after grounded vessel spills oil; risk likely to rise as warming opens waters
russianshipwreck
The Petrozavodsk after running aground on Bear Island on May 11. Photo provided by the Norwegian Coastal Administration.

There's a bounty of riches awaiting in the melting waters of the Arctic, but native dwellers may pay the ultimate price as increased traffic means a greater risk of incidents like a Russian ship that ran aground and spilled oil in a Svalbard bird sanctuary earlier this month.

The Petrozavodsk remains stuck on the southern coast of Bear Island, with the captain facing prosecution for drinking on duty and the first mate for drinking and falling asleep while on watch. With Arctic seas containing up to a quarter of the world's remaining oil and cargo shippers preparing to take advantage of much cheaper polar routes, officials say current regulations and resources are insufficient and more wrecks could have catastrophic impacts.

"We must be realistic and expect that more such modern 'landmarks' can emerge and persist," said Svalbard Governor Per Sefland in a Norwegian Constitution Day speech to Longyearbyen residents during an evening theater event. The grounding is a reminder "of how fragile our exotic island is (and) a reminder that we must take new measures aimed at prevention."

The Arctic is warming faster – some estimate twice as much – than the global average, according to the United Nations Climate Panel, and summer sea ice shrunk in 2007 to its smallest area since satellite records began. The most heated resulting battle is sovereignty as several nations fight for the right to an estimated 90 billion barrels of untapped oil, enough to meet current world demand for three years. There are also areas where mining companies may find new deposits and increases in other commercial shipping activity are expected.

"I think there are plenty of opportunities," said Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere during an April meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council in Tromsø. He said countries need to develop rules now to head off potential disputes, but a greater military presence may also be needed because "the more activity there is, the more responsibility there is for the coastal states to ensure there is order."

The estimated cost of transporting a shipping container in 2007 between northern Europe and Alaska's Aleutian Islands is about $500, while moving the same container between Europe and the port of Yokohama through the Suez Canal costs about $1,500, said Mead Treadwell, chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. But during a U.S. Senate hearing in 2008 he said it may be decades before policy disputes are resolved and melting advances enough to ensure waters are consistently accessible for large-scale transit.

bear island map

“The Arctic Ocean is a ‘patchwork quilt’ of tolls and regulations by several coastal nations," he said. "Arctic shipping will grow when rules are certain and when products can be delivered competitively with other routes. This means on a time and cost basis, not just on shorter distances.”

The Petrozavodsk is the first ship to run aground in Svalbard since about 1990, when another incident occurred on the west coast of Bear Island, said Lars Fause, assistant governor for the archipelago. He said the north coast of the island has a ship identification system, but its 50-kilometer range was insufficient to detect when the Russian vessel veered off course, one of many deficiencies regional officials are now trying to correct.

"Our suggestion is to put an antenna on the southern part of the island," he said. Other areas needing detectors to deal with future ship traffic include west coast areas such Ny-Ålesund and the northeast channel.

Even if an incident is detected, responding can be problematic due to weather, geography and available equipment, Fause said. It took 20 hours for the Coast Guard to reach the Petrozavodsk and fog soon after kept a group of environmental professionals from inspecting the scene.

"If there is a crash with oil pollution in the east of Svalbard we have no resources to send out quickly," he said, adding "in other part of the islands we may not be able to handle the situation for many days."

Some of that is being addressed with increased training, requests for equipment and policy strategies emphasizing environmental protection as expanded economic opportunities are considered, Fause said.

But improving access doesn't necessarily mean resolving problems, as the Petrozavodsk may demonstrate.

"They told us it may not be possible to rescue the vessel," Fause said. Salvagers need to build a small dock behind the ship, which the geography may not permit, and "they told us the weather conditions are very tough out there."

The ship was carrying a total of 30 cubic meters of oil divided into four containers, at least two of which may have broken.

"They think the next storm the ship may be taken out and there may be more pollution," Fause said. The good news is "it is diesel, not heavy oil, so it is disappearing."

The spill has already covered an area of sea up to three kilometers wide and some areas of the sanctuary have as many as 50 birds per square meter of land. It does not appear the diesel has caused significant environmental damage, but Fause said the risk presented by accidents in the area is enormous.

"That's the most important area for birds in Norway and perhaps Northern Europe," he said.

The Russian ship Petrozavodsk may be stuck on the coast of Bear Island, which officials say is a concern because of oil still inside. Photo provided by the Norwegian Coastal Administration.

Heavy fuel has been banned since 2007 in East Svalbard nature preserves and a similar proposal is under consideration for the three major national parks on the west coast. Similar restrictions adopted this year for Antarctica that take effect in 2011 are expected to significantly reduce the number of cruise ships there, with some companies already announcing cancellations as soon as next year because of higher fuel costs.

The light fuel restrictions for Svalbard are part of a long-term strategy released last month by the Norwegian government for minimizing the environmental risk presented by numerous factors.

"Compared with the mainland the traffic density at Svalbard is modest," the strategic paper notes. "But Svalbard consists largely of particularly vulnerable or protected natural areas. The total damage potential on Svalbard is large, while acceptance risks for environmental damage is equivalent to low."

Total boat calls to Svalbard rose from 166 in 2000 to a peak of 799 in 2006 before declining to 771 in 2008. Among industrial calls, the number of ships exporting coal from mines increased from 14 in 1998 to 64 in 2007, although the number of fishing vessels decreased.

"Accidental oil spills from shipping are among the events that have the greatest potential for significant and long-term damage to the natural environment," the report states. "Because of the special conditions that prevail in Svalbard's waters, lack of marine planning and limited navigation aids, the greatest risks of accidents are related to running aground, with the danger of oil spills. The risk is greatest in coastal waters with a short time before a discharge reaching the land."

"The potential discharge volume is less, but Svalbard also has large concentrations of vulnerable biological resources collected on smaller geographic areas."

There's also a concern about navigating challenging waterways that are poorly charted in areas, especially since weather and ice melt can affect accessibility significantly.

"The knowledge and skills of navigators who sailed in the waters of Svalbard for many years is an important contribution to reduced risk," the report states. "However, an increase in ship traffic, with new players, will increase the risk of accidents if risk-reducing measures are not implemented."

Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark, Greenland and the United States are the countries most active in staking claims to the Arctic. Maritime law allows countries the rights to natural resources within 200 nautical miles of their shoreline, which can be extended up to a total of 350 nautical miles if they can prove an undersea continental plate is an extension of their territory.

Norway earlier this year won approval from the United Nations to extend its Arctic shelf by 235,000 square kilometers, giving the country exploitation rights to nearly 2 million square kilometers in the region. But Norway is still stuck in a dispute with Russia about a 175,000 square-kilometre portion of the Barents Sea, with the UN stating both countries have legitimate claims and a sharing agreement should be worked out between them.

A tone of cooperation was voiced by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg during a May 19 meeting in Brvikha, Russia, to discuss Arctic energy development.

"Our countries are northern, Arctic. The region's development depends how we carry out a coordinated position on the development of the Arctic," Medvedev said.

But actions by countries, including those toward long-term allies, often doesn't match the conciliatory words.

Russia, according to some reports, is the most active nation in trying to establish sovereign rights, getting considerable attention for a 2007 "stunt" where they tried to claim the North Pole and surrounding area by planting a flag there. More recent and practical efforts include ordering several icebreakers and working to rebuild the decaying city of Murmansk into the "Emirates of the North" (a new regional government was announced May 25). Canada has also been aggressive, recently completing a mapping project extending into territory claimed by Russia. Both are talking extensively about future military deployment in the region.

Norway tried to implement a double-hull regulation for ships to reduce the likelihood of spills during an accident, but was thwarted by the lack of unity in maritime regulations. Fause said some Russian ships don't have such hulls, which is "a concern in international waters."

Still, Fasue said he believes talks with Russia like those earlier this month can be productive since environmental protections are to some degree in everyone's self-interest.

"I think they will agree oil spills are a bad thing," he said.

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