Rocking the boat

Weekly Cover | Arctic shipping is seeing unfettered growth, but it is not always smooth sailing

The name says it all (Photo: Sovcomflot)

Hector Martin

Shipping, like natural resource extraction, always rates highly in discussions of the economic potential of the Arctic.

And when it comes to such discussion, there are two things that have come to be taken for granted. Firstly, that shipping lanes are there to be taken advantage of, and, secondly, that the ships sailing those lanes will be regulated by a set of rules known as the Polar Code.

So when leading figures in the industry make statements that rock the boat of the general accepted order, it is worth taking note.

SEE VIDEO: A journey through the melting Arctic (at end of article)

Speaking at the Arctic Business conference in Bodø, Norway, on Thursday, Thomas Olsen, the owner of Fred. Olsen, a Norwegian shipping company, cautioned against opening Arctic routes to traffic before the consequences were fully understood.

“There’s no rush to develop the Arctic,” he told the conference. “These are resources we don’t need right now. This is an area we still have the chance to protect.”

Olsen called for a complete ban on Arctic development, both as a way to prevent ice from melting, but also as way for businesses to avoid the costs associated with global warming.

“If the oceans rise, we won’t be able to use any of our ports, and that would be a problem for businesses.”

SEE RELATED: The shippers are willing, but the insurers are leery

Other executives attending the conference, including Sturla Henriksen, the managing director of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association, recognised the challenges associated with Arctic shipping, but suggested that better regulation would help alleviate environmental threats.

“We see incredible interest from around the world about what’s happening in the Arctic,” he told NKR, a Norwegian broadcaster. “The way things are right now, ships have the same rules sailing in the Arctic as they do for sailing on a sunny day in the Mediterranean. That’s no good.”

While widespread commercial utilisation of the three Arctic sailing routes still remains well in the future, traffic growth on Northern Sea Route, north of Russia, has rapidly increased since 2009, when the first ships successfully navigated it without the assistance of icebreakers.

This year, some 500 ships are completed the Northern Sea Route. If traffic growth continues, cargo volumes are likely to reach 60 million tonnes by 2030.

Although the route is widely touted as a shortcut between Asia and Europe, the majority of traffic is currently made up by ships travelling from ports in the region, typically loaded with raw materials, bound for European and Asian ports. This type of traffic is expected to continue to form the bulk of Northern Sea Route shipping.

Henriksen has previously stated that the increases, regardless of the type of traffic, underscored the need for a global regulatory framework, such as the Polar Code, a set of regulations governing shipbuilding and navigational practices for ships sailing in polar waters.

SEE RELATED: Arctic’s ship still over horizon

The International Maritime Organisation, a UN body, is responsible for drawing up the Polar Code. The regulations are still being worked out but they could be ready for approval by member states by the end of this year, but some in the industry warn that the rules have been too hollowed out by compromise and will not serve as an effective guarantee of safety in polar waters.

Supporters recognise the code’s shortcomings, but defend it is a necessary first step.

Still others, including some in Moscow, have expressed concern that the code would hamper the growth of traffic.

Addressing the Danish Maritime Forum in Copenhagen this week Victor Olersky, Russia’s deputy transport minister, accepted that the Polar Code would promote safe shipping, but added that Moscow was leery that it was placing “unfeasible requirements” on ships that would cancel out the benefits of the route.

“The Polar Code shall not become a set of rigid, prohibitive measures that will prevent shipping companies from using the Northern Sea Route,” he said.

SEE RELATED: Filling in the holes of the Polar Code

Among Russia’s concerns is that a plan to prohibit ships from discharging ballast water in polar regions, as a way to prevent the introduction of non-native species, would hurt ships that sailed primarily within the region.

The IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee will meet in London next week to discuss a number of issues, including the Polar Code and ballast water.

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