Senate Energy Committee hearing exposes irony of Arctic opportunities

What way forward for the U.S. Arctic? Photo: Polar Bear and a Barrier Island on the Alaska Arctic Coast. USFWS/Flickr

What way forward for the U.S. Arctic? Photo: Polar Bear and a Barrier Island on the Alaska Arctic Coast. USFWS/Flickr

Today, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Arctic opportunities to assess how the country can improve its standing as an Arctic nation and improve the lives of those living in the region. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) delivered the opening remarks, while the witness panel included movers and shakers from the frosty world of U.S. Arctic politics. Admiral Papp, appointed last year to the newly created position of Special Representative for the Arctic, was the first to testify. Alaskan state representatives, a sea ice scientist, an indigenous mayor from Alaska, and the director of the Maine Port Authority followed him. The committee broadcast the hearing live on its website, and it is available for replay.

Although Arctic issues remain on Washington’s back burner, they have increased in importance in recent years. This reflects the rapid environmental and economic changes that have occurred in the world’s northern latitudes. As Charlotte Brower, Mayor of the North Slope Borough, eloquently noted, just 70 years ago a person traveling in northern Alaska would encounter a landscape populated by nomadic peoples relying on the land and sea for their resources. Once oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, everything changed. “In a period of roughly 30 years, we experienced over 200 years of economic development and advancement,” she noted. “Melting snow and water morphed to turning on a faucet, whale oil was replaced by electricity and natural gas, and dogs gave way to snowmobiles.” Brower, however, did not seem to lament these upheavals to indigenous ways of life. Schools, hospitals, police, fire stations, and hospitals were all built, bringing modernity and a higher quality of life to indigenous peoples living on the North Slope. The mayor believes that more oil and gas development will deliver further improvements to her community. In Alaska, the importance of the oil industry cannot be understated. Revenues from North Slope oil production fund a whopping 90 percent of the state budget.

A land of opportunity

All of the other witnesses save for the scientist echoed Brower in seeing the Arctic as a land of opportunity. The hearing was called “U.S. Arctic Opportunities” and not “U.S. Arctic Risks.” Oil and gas production, icebreakers, deep water ports, and shipping were all tossed about as means for Alaska to develop its economy. On most of these issues, the federal government is seen as enemy number one, with many Alaskans perceiving it to prioritize climate change above people, jobs, and growth. Mayor Brower criticized,

“Our government has chosen to side with powerful special interest groups and focus on issues like climate change, creating new layers for governance over the Arctic, and creating pan-Arctic marine protection areas.”

The hearing unsurprisingly revealed that Alaskans want the feds to focus on the economy rather than the environment. Alaskan State Senator Lesil McGuire reminded the audience of her state’s role in bolstering U.S. energy security, dropping a reference to the Alaska Wildlife National Refuge (ANWR). Many Alaskans are grumbling about ANWR after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended designating an additional 12 million acres as protected wilderness. But Alaska is not what it once was in terms of energy supplies. Mayor Brower referenced the North Slope’s declining production and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline’s reduced flows, which peaked in 1980. North Dakota surpassed Alaska in oil production in 2012 and is doing more to enhance American self-sufficiency in energy production than the 49th state.

The Maine way forward

A lighthouse in Maine surrounded by Arctic sea smoke. Photo: Wayne Boardman/Flickr.

For a state that’s only recently rediscovered its proximity to the Arctic, Maine had an outsize presence at the hearing. In the past two years, thanks to Icelandic shipping company Eimskip’s decision to relocate its North American port of call from Virginia to Portsmouth, Maine, the northeastern state has made a splash in U.S. Arctic politics. I first wrote about this development in a blog post in 2013 entitled “Maine: The Next Near-Arctic State?”

Trade, transportation links, and globalization are the drivers of Maine’s strategy in the Arctic. This seems to be working slightly better than Alaska’s economic blueprint, which is based on fossil fuel production. In 2013, Maine’s economic growth, though among the slowest in the union, still increased by 0.9%. Alaska’s GDP contracted by 2.5%. Patrick Arnold, the Director of Operations and Business Development of the Maine Port Authority, remarked that their motto is “build trade and mutual economic opportunity, and all else will follow.”

More than the Arctic just coming to Maine via Eimskip, two of the state’s companies are doing business in the region. Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power researches tidal energy solutions and has a project in Cook Inlet, Alaska, while Pika Industries, also based in Portland, works on generating electricity through renewable means and then distributing it via microgrids, which could prove useful for remote communities in the Alaskan Arctic. In contrast, Alaskan representatives barely mentioned the development of renewable energy even though under the previous governor, the state had a plan to generate 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. Alaska appears to be suffering from a case of path dependence. In other words, there’s oil in the ground and the infrastructure is in place, so why not drill more? Maine, in contrast, has charted a new way forward to the north sparked by Eimskip’s serendipitous decision.

One of Maine’s senators, Angus King (I-ME), participated in the Senate hearing. He was able to take the train down to D.C. instead of having to fly from Alaska. The close proximity between the Northeast and D.C. suggest that Maine may have an increasingly prominent role in shaping federal decisions about the Arctic. Fortunately for Alaska, Maine seems to be on its side when it comes to larger issues that need federal support, like the construction of an icebreaker. Senator King noted that one new icebreaker costs the same amount of money as 100 miles of interstate highway.* “We ought to be able to build 100 miles of interstate highway to access this incredible region,” he avowed. Using a reference commonly made in Arctic circles to a much warmer body of water, he continued, “It’s as if we’ve discovered the Mediterranean Sea. It’s essentially an entirely new body of water that’s been locked up for centuries.” Alaskan Natives might beg to differ as they have been in those very waters since time immemorial, but the melting of the Arctic Ocean is indisputable.

Any jockeying between Alaska and Maine ultimately seemed friendly and cooperative. Senator King joked that at first, he wanted to be the U.S. Arctic Senator, but quickly realized that he’d have to settle for being the Assistant Arctic Senator instead. He also reassured the Alaskans in the room that their state is still number one in the U.S. Arctic. A partnership between the country’s senior and junior Arctic states will likely be mutually beneficial, in any case. Maine could learn from Alaska’s history and experience in the Arctic, while the country’s northernmost state could benefit from some Yankee ingenuity.

Burning down the Senate

Senator Al Franken finds the whole push for oil development in the Arctic "ironic." Photo: U.S. Senate Democrats/Flickr

Senator Al Franken finds the whole push for oil development in the Arctic “ironic.” Photo: U.S. Senate Democrats/Flickr

After the witnesses finishing speaking, the real divisions in the U.S. Arctic became apparent. They were not between Alaska and Maine, nor were they even between the U.S. and Russia, as several participants emphasized the importance of bilateral cooperation. Instead, the schism was between the pro-oil and anti-oil camps. The liberals came out of the woodwork during the question and answer session, with Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) suggesting, “We have a bit of an ironic situation here, do we not? The burning of fossil fuels is creating an opportunity to find more fossil fuels to burn.” He then brought up the enormous costs associated with relocating coastal communities in Alaska that are already being washed away by rising sea levels and more dramatic storms. Franken concluded that while Arctic climate change is creating economic opportunities for the state of Alaska, exploiting those very opportunities may exacerbate the situation. “The state is melting to some degree,” he said. “And the coastal communities are obviously feeling it.”

Next came Senator Bernie Sanders (I-NH), who opened by stating the “virtually unanimous” scientific consensus that surrounds climate change, which is “already happening.” He went down the line asking each witness to answer, yes or no, whether we need to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel. Every single witness said yes.

Sanders then, almost seeming exasperated, inquired,

“It would seem to me if one is concerned about preserving your way of life, that one must be a leader in the fight against climate change. And I understand the economic implications of it. But how can we be talking about about producing more oil, which causes climate change and which will be devastating to the communities of Native Alaskans? That I don’t quite understand. Mayor Brower, do you want to help me out on that one?”

The mayor responded,

“I believe that this is a 10,000 year old question. We never question anything that comes to us. We live with what has come before us.”

Sanders then interjected,

“In all due respect, this is not a 10,000 year old question. Climate change has been significantly accelerated in recent years, the evidence is it is caused by human activity…What about the point that some of you, at least, are in favor of more production of fossil fuels, which is ultimately destroying the very communities that your people live in? That does not make a lot of sense to me, in all due respect. What am I missing?”

The mayor responded in a round-about way, admitting they should have found a safer place to develop oil maybe farther away from vulnerable coastal communities. Yet it seems that what Senator Sanders is missing is that oil production has already irrevocably changed indigenous ways of life in Alaska. As Brower mentioned in her testimony, they already have a very modern way of life. There’s no going back to the nomadic ways of life that existed 70 years ago. And so the indigenous peoples live with decisions that have been made before them.

The lack of agency in the Mayor’s response about “never questioning” what comes seems tragic, but perhaps Sanders should have asked whether resisting the onslaught of modernization and industry in the Arctic was ever even a possibility. Without the opportunity to turn back the tide of time, the Mayor can only look to the future and try to ensure the continuation of the only real source of revenue her generation has ever known on the North Slope: oil production. After all, it is faucets, electricity, and snowmobiles which provide for their way of life as they know it now – not sea ice, whale oil, and dogs. Halting the expansion of oil production in Alaska today may slightly stymie global carbon emissions, but it will never bring back Alaska Natives’ former ways of life.

Some traditions remain, but native life has changed forever in Alaska. Photo: Cindy Zackowitz/Flickr.

Some traditions remain, but native life has changed forever in Alaska. Photo: Cindy Zackowitz/Flickr.

U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship

Admiral Papp answered Senator Murkowski’s question to provide more clarification on the direction the U.S. will take once it assumes chairmanship of the Arctic Council this spring. He explained that determining the real role of the Arctic Economic Council (AEC), which the Canadian chairmanship created, will be a high priority. Senator Murkowski agreed that continuing the work of the Canadians is imperative. She elaborated, “An economy that allows for the people of the North to not only exist but to thrive is critical.” While the Arctic Council chairmanship changes every two years, Murkowski also wants to ensure that the AEC remains a continued priority even once the gavel passes. 

Better yet would be to make the Alaskan Senator’s long-term view even longer. Policymakers need to look not just two or four years down the line when it comes to the Arctic’s economy and environment, but rather twenty or forty years. The climate cannot withstand another century of oil production, nor can Alaska’s economy thrive this way. The real opportunity that the U.S. has in the Arctic is to resist the easy choice of more drilling and instead begin building the foundations of an economy that is sustainable for both the people and the environment in the long term.

An ice dam in Greenland. Will this be the year the "dam of denial," as Paul Gilding asks, breaks in the Arctic? Photo: Mia Bennett, 2014.

An ice dam in Greenland. Will this be the year the “dam of denial,” as Paul Gilding asks, breaks in the Arctic? Photo: Mia Bennett, 2014.

*Fact-check: The Federal Highway Administration has estimated, in 1996 dollars, a cost of $20.6 million per mile of interstate highway built. This turns into about $32 million per mile in 2014 dollars, making 100 miles of interstate highway cost $3.2 billion. In 2014, the Coast Guard estimated that a new icebreaker would cost approximately $1 billion, meaning that three icebreakers could actually be built for the cost of 100 miles of interstate highway.

Chinese companies: Mining and housing the Arctic

Greenland: There be iron. Photo: Mia Bennett © 2014.

Greenland: There be iron. Photo: Mia Bennett © 2014.

Last week, I reviewed China’s past year in the Arctic. In its first full year as an Arctic Council observer, a status it won in May 2013 along with four other Arctic countries, the country carried out an Antarctic rescue, purchased a stake in an Icelandic offshore oil field, and carried out an Arctic icebreaker expedition to name just a few activities. Although the Year of the Sheep has barely begun, China is already off to an explosive start in the Arctic.

Mining the Arctic

Earlier this year, General Nice, a Chinese company headquartered in Hong Kong, purchased the recently bankrupt London Mining Company. The defunct British-based company had two main projects underway: one in Greenland at the Isua iron ore mine and one in Sierra Leone at the active Marampa iron ore mine. Due to the drop of iron ore prices and the ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, where the bulk of the company’s efforts were focused, the company was forced into administration and taken over by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Soon thereafter, the Marampa mine was taken over by the Africa-focused mining company Timis Corporation in November for a mere $20 million. Completing London Mining’s dismantling, in January, General Nice decided to purchase the Isua project for an undisclosed amount.

According to Bloomberg, General Nice engages in “engages in coke production, metal scrap operation, non-ferrous metal processing, and ore mining.” It is one of China’s largest domestic traders and exporters of coke, a material made from bituminous coal used in iron smelting. Iron, in turn, is used for making steel. In 2013, China produced nearly half of the world’s steel. The iron-carbon alloy is used in building ships, icebreakers, tanks, airplanes, and all sorts of other construction. As this primer on the steel industry explains,

“Steel production at an integrated steel plant involves three basic steps. First, the heat source used to melt iron ore is produced. Next the iron ore is melted in a furnace. Finally, the molten iron is processed to produce steel. These three steps can be done at one facility; however, the fuel source is often purchased from off-site producers.”

For General Nice, those off-site producers of fuel are largely located domestically in Shanxi, Hebei, Inner Mongolia and Shandong.

A steel mill in China. Photo: Zlatko Unger/Flickr.

A steel mill in China. Photo: Zlatko Unger/Flickr.

So why did General Nice buy out London Mining’s Isua project? In short, to pursue what appears to be a strategy of vertical integration. Right now, General Nice imports most of its iron ores from India, Australia, Chile, Indonesia and Mexico. But as a growing company, it needs more sources of the silvery-orange mineral. General Nice’s 2008-2018 Mineral Resources Development Plan aims for the company to “rank forefront” in iron ore and import 15 million metric tons per year. Coincidentally (or not), London Mining had projected that the Isua iron ore mine, with 1.1 billion tons of iron ore deposits, would be capable of exporting 15 million tons annually. The Isua iron ore mine is still very much in its infancy and General Nice faces a difficult situation in bringing down capital costs there, estimated to be well over USD $2 billion. But if it is successful, then the company will add a very high-quality source of iron ore to its portfolio while assimilating the Arctic into the industrial commodity chains that more and more often lead to China. All roads once led to Rome. Now they lead to the Middle Kingdom.

It is important to note that General Nice is a private company, unlike, say, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), which holds the stake in Iceland’s Dreki field. This distinction is important, as it is somewhat erroneous to say that the Isua iron ore mine is “the first Arctic resources project to come under the full ownership of China,” as the Financial Times reports. This type of rhetoric by the media feeds into Western fears of China taking over the Arctic. China does not own the iron ore mine; instead, General Nice, as a private company, does (more on the company management team here).

Housing the Arctic

Yakutsk: Not a dump, but still overcrowded. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Yakutsk: Not a dump, but still overcrowded. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Amidst the frenzy over a Chinese company’s designs in Greenland, the story that may have fallen by the wayside is Zhuoda Group (桌达)’s plan to spend 40 billion rubles over the next six years building much-needed homes and social infrastructure in Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). Located in the Russian Far East, the city is closer to Beijing than Moscow. I first came across the story on Jichang Lulu’s blog, which regularly posts fascinating tidbits about Asian involvement in Arctic development. The construction costs will probably be a steal for Zhuoda Group given the 40% plunge of the ruble over the past six months. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the project, which would have cost a little over USD $1 billion half a year ago, will only cost $640 million now.

Zhuoda Group has managed several projects abroad before including in Malaysia and Russia. The company’s core development philosophy is “to follow the strategies of the State.” The website goes on to describe that the company’s projects and operations “are all developed to meet the needs of the country and the future of the Group,” a statement which signals that private Chinese companies are more closely linked to the state than their Western counterparts.

All of the steel that China is producing has to go somewhere. Other Chinese companies like Landsea have announced billion-dollar housing projects in places like California. An article in DV Kapital (in Russian) notes that Zhuoda Group will build 300 homes, kindergartens, and schools. The construction in Yakutsk will take place atop permafrost, which will prove challenging. But the project is timely and will meet many local needs, provided construction is tough enough to withstand the local environmental and climatic conditions. As I wrote in 2011 in a post called “Pollution, Shipping, and Kindergartens in the Russian Arctic,” a survey in Arkhangelsk found housing and kindergartens to be residents’ main priorities. 
Lack of housing and overcrowding has historically been a severe problem across much of the Arctic from Canada to Russia, even though it is somewhat counterintuitive given the region’s sparse level of population. Paul Josephson writes in his book, The Conquest of the Russian Arctic, “With their interest in creation and resurrection of heavy industry Soviet leaders rarely gave housing the investment it needed or, if so, as an afterthought.” Even though many cities in the Russian Arctic have experienced dramatic depopulation since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Yakutsk’s population has grown in recent years.

In 1992, an article in Bloomberg (with a headline, “A Crumbling City Built On Diamonds And Ice,” typical of Western newspapers in the early 1990s that triumphantly describes the decaying decadence of the collapsed Soviet Union) described the sorry situation in Yakutsk. Not having been there, I’m not sure whether the city really is “a dump” 23 years on. But I imagine still some of what is quoted below still holds true today:

“Impoverished local villagers moved to the city in search of a better life. Now, Yakutsk is overcrowded and underdeveloped. “It’s a dump,” says Tamara Shamshurina, the editor of Youth of Yakutia, a former Communist Party paper that has gone independent. “We’re rich in gold and diamonds, and we live in poverty.”

Like any business-minded company, Chinese companies like General Nice and Zhouda Group are expanding across the world in search of profits. Zhouda Group’s plans, however, run counter to the common narrative of rapacious Chinese companies exploiting the Arctic for raw materials. They are also building much-needed social infrastructure in the Arctic at a time when many governments are not delivering. China may end up as a sort of Arctic middleman facilitating the transformation of Greenlandic iron ore into a home in Yakutsk via a steel mill in Hebei.

China’s Year in the Arctic: Far from Sheepish

Sheep in Iceland. Photo: Vincent/Flickr

Sheep in Iceland. Photo: Vincent/Flickr

Thursday marked the first day of the Year of the Sheep (or ram or goat, depending on how you translate it). Hundreds of millions of people in China, across Asia, and in diaspora communities around the world rang in the new lunar new year with light and sound. With China looking ahead to the year 4713, this provides an opportune time to look back on the country’s year in the Arctic.

This week also coincides with celebrations in China of thirty years of polar expeditions and a permanent polar presence, as Xinhua’s Han Song reports. Exactly three decades ago, on February 20, 1985, China opened its first permanent polar research station: the Great Wall Station (长城站) in Antarctica. China has since added three stations to the continent and plans to open an additional one in Victoria Land in eastern Antarctica later this year. In the Arctic, China has one permanent research station in the town of Ny-Alesund in Svalbard, Norway. It’s called Yellow River and has been open since 2004. It’ll be another two decades until China celebrates thirty years of a permanent presence in the Arctic, but the country is still making strides in the High North. Here are the month-by-month highlights of China’s past year in the Arctic.

January 2014

Just nine days before 2014’s Lunar New Year celebration, controversy erupted in Iceland after it was revealed that the National Energy Authority had granted Chinese state-owed oil major CNOOC a license to explore for oil in the Dreki Area, an area offshore northeast Iceland. China and Iceland have ramped up economic cooperation since signing a free-trade agreement in 2013. CNOOC Iceland, a subsidiary of CNOOC, holds a 60 percent share in the new offshore license, while Icelandic companies Eykon Energy and Petoro Iceland AS hold 15 and 25 percent, respectively. Sixty to seventy protestors gathered in Reykjavik outside the Culture House (Þjóðmenningarhúsið) to protest the decision. Arni Finsson, chairman of the Iceland Nature Conversation, stated to AFP,

“Iceland should not bet on oil at a time when it is doubtful that humanity can reach its (greenhouse gas) goals.”

February 2014

Denmark’s Arctic Ambassador Erik Vilstrup Lorenzen and Greenland’s former Deputy Foreign Minister Kai Holst visited China to discuss increased cooperation in the areas of fishing, mining, and scientific research, Xinhua reported. The Polar Research Institute of China also invited the Danish and Greenlandic visitors to participate in a Q&A session, which focused on “Greenland’s future potential, human capital, infrastructure and the northern sea route,” according to the Danish Embassy in China.

March 2014

It was widely reported in outlets like SinoShipNews that China would complete its national polar shipping guidelines by June, although no update since then appears available on the country’s progress. Since October 2013, the Ministry of Transport, Polar Research Institute of China, and the Ship Navigation Engineering Research Center at Fujian Jimei Univeristy have been preparing the guidelines. The fact that China is undertaking this effort signals that it is preparing for more of its merchant marine vessels to sail in the Arctic.

April 2014

One of just two private parcels of land in Svalbard went up for sale, sparking fears that China would swoop in. The South China Morning Post quoted Willy Østreng of the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research as saying, “China has expressed an interest in the resources and shipping lanes of the Arctic…This land would provide a permanent foothold.” It appears that Østreng conflated “China” with Huang Nubo, the private investor who attempted to purchase a tract of land in Iceland to develop an ecotourism resort before being foiled by the government. Nubo had expressed a specific interest in buying the private parcel on Svalbard, called Austre Adventfjord, in an interview with NRK. Yet the lawyer of the family selling the estate claimed to VG, a newspaper, that Nubo had in fact not contacted them and that no such talks were underway.

The next month, the Norwegian government announced plans to purchase the land and take over it in the interest of “managing Svalbard for the common good.” If successful, the move would mirror the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from their private Japanese owner in 2012. The Norwegian case seems to have overblown fears of a Chinese invasion in the Arctic written all over it. If anyone was worried about China being in the Arctic, they should have spoken up when the country opened its Yellow River Station on Svalbard in 2003.

China already has a permanent home on Svalbard at its Yellow River Station. Photo: Rerun van Holt/Flickr

China already has a permanent home on Svalbard at its Yellow River Station. Photo: Rerun van Pelt/Flickr

May 2014

China and Russia signed a $400 billion, 30-year gas contract, which I blogged about last year. According to the terms, Gazprom will deliver 38bcm of gas per year to China beginning in 2018. Much of the gas will come from the Chayandinskoye field in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) via the Power of Siberia pipeline, which is still under constructed. Analysts generally saw the terms as favoring China, but in reality, both sides will benefit. Russia will be able to diversify its export markets away from Europe, while China will get a much-needed new source of gas to help lessen its dependence on coal, especially in northeastern China where air pollution is particularly severe. The China-Russia gas deal could also help facilitate future Chinese involvement in offshore Arctic oil and gas development by enhancing cooperation between the two countries (although the plunge in the price of oil has since dramatically changed the calculus of Arctic offshore energy projects).

June 2014

China announced that it would put an absolute cap on carbon emissions beginning in 2016, reported Reuters. The next day, however, China’s Chief Climate Negotiator Su Wei clarified that China was actually seeking to merely reduce emissions rather than set an absolute cap. In either case, a few days before, the United States had stated that it would attempt to reduce emissions from power generation. These announcements from the world’s first and second largest carbon emitters were welcome news for the Arctic, where the dramatic increase in global carbon emissions is having an intense regional effect.

July 2014

Xue Long docked in Taiwan. Photo: Yi-Lin Hsieh/Flickr

Xue Long docked in Taiwan. Photo: Yi-Lin Hsieh/Flickr

China’s icebreaker, Xue Long, departed Shanghai for its sixth Arctic expedition. (By contrast, the vessel had undertaken 30 Antarctic expeditions at the time of its departure for the north.) The icebreaker planned to travel some 11,057 nautical miles over 76 days through the Bering and Chukchi Seas and Canada Basin while scientists on board studied Arctic marine hydrology, geology, and biology, according to Xinhua.

August 2014

Prime Minister Stephen Harper banned reporters from two Chinese outlets, Xinhua and the People’s Daily, from attending his annual trip to the Arctic. Xinhua is China’s official state news agency, while the People’s Daily is the official newspaper of the Communist Party. Ottawa explained the ban as due to “past incidents and behaviours.” During Harper’s trip north in 2013, People’s Daily reporter Li Xuejiang was accused of pushing one of the Prime Minister’s spokeswomen. Harper’s decision, however, was likely more just for making (populist) headlines; as next month would show, economic cooperation between Chinese and Canadian corporations continues to move full steam ahead in the Arctic.

September 2014

Canadian shipping company Fednav’s MV Nunavik (which I blogged about in April 2014) departed Canadian Royalties’ nickel mine in Deception Bay, Quebec for Bayuquan, one of China’s northernmost ports. Despite the name, Canadian Royalties is actually owned by China’s Jilin Jien Nickel Industry Company (though it is still managed by Canadians). The icebreaking bulk carrier sailed from Quebec through the Northwest Passage carrying 23,000 tons of nickel concentrate. Fednav allowed readers to follow the ship’s historic journey on its website, which still has an archive of all the entries. In his last entry, MV Nunavik’s Chief Engineer wrote:

“I want to thank everyone at Fednav for giving me this privilege as Chief Engineer to take new delivery of the Nunavik in Japan, travel through the Panama Canal to Deception Bay, and then later back to China through the NWP to, in essence, circumnavigate the big island of North America.”

This statement encapsulates the emerging circuit of commodities like nickel that are transported from the Arctic to Asia, where they are used in the process of building infrastructure like steel-hulled ships like MV Nunavik, which was built in a Japanese shipyard. In turn, vessels such as these travel back to the Arctic to ship out even more resources. Coincidentally, the ship arrived to Bayuquan with its cargo of nickel on October 15 – five days before the China Mining Expo would open in Tianjin, a city six hours away by car.

October 2014

Two of the world’s largest annual mining expos were held in China, with the China Mining Expo in Tianjin and Exploration Exchange China in Beijing. These fairs are important for attracting investor interest, particularly Chinese companies since China is the world’s largest consumer of metals and minerals. Greenland’s Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, which had made a showing at these expos in previous years, had to cancel its attendance at the last minute due to the political scandal embroiling former Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond and the subsequent collapse of the coalition government in Nuuk. This month was difficult overall for mining prospects in Greenland, as London Mining Corporation, which had allegedly planned to fly in hundreds of Chinese employees to work in the Isua iron mine, collapsed.

November 2014

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, where the country’s icebreaker Xue Long was docked in port. During his visit, Xi signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on bilateral cooperation in Antarctica. The signing took place while researchers at China’s Zhongshan Station and Australia’s Davis Station watched via a live video link. Among other topics covered by the MoU, China agreed to use Hobart as its main gateway to Antarctica, dealing a blow to Christchurch, New Zealand, which Xue Long has visited several times before en route to “the Ice,” as the continent is sometimes called. Before leaving, the Chinese President visited the bright red icebreaker and gave a pep talk to the researchers onboard.

December 2014

Winning photograph, "Arctic Peoples" in CAFF's "Through the Arctic" contest. Jiannan Wang

An Inuit hunter in Greenland looks for seals with his dogs. Photo: © Jiannan Wang/CAFF

Chinese photographer Jiannan Wang, who described himself on his LinkedIn profile as having been born in the “Ice City” of Harbin, won first place in the “Arctic Peoples” category of the “Through the Lens” photography contest, which was sponsored by the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Secretariat. His award-winning picture depicted an Inuit hunter and his dogs tracking seals near Qaanaaq. Given that it was taken in backlit conditions with sharp contrasts between light and shadow, the photograph is especially impressive.

Over the past seven years, Wang has traveled to the Arctic 18 times and has visited 124 northern villages in all eight Arctic countries. Wang writes on his profile that he plans to continue traveling and taking photographs across the Arctic until he has visited all of the significant Arctic settlements as listed in the Arctic Human Development Report, which could take at least ten years.

Additionally in December, a traveling exhibit of Wang’s work, titled “Life in the Arctic,” was held at Peking University to stimulate the interest of young Chinese students in the Arctic. A video of the exhibit reveals the immense breadth of work on display, taken from Wang’s collection of 30,000 photographs. He has also published his photography in a book called 66 Degrees North Latitude: The Arctic from Alternative Angles (北緯66度).

Wang’s endeavors reveal that China is not just in the Arctic in search of oil, minerals, and shorter shipping routes. Chinese individuals are simply intrigued by the Arctic, too, just like millions of other people around the world. Their curiosities don’t necessarily have to do with national interests, nor do they need to be perceived as threatening. When it comes to reporting on Chinese activities in the Arctic, it’s important to separate the people from the state, which the media often fails to do.

January 2015

China sent a sizable delegation to the Arctic Frontiers conference, held every year in Tromsø, Norway. Huigen Yang, head of the Polar Research Institute of China, Zha Daojiong, a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies, and Sun Xiansheng, president of the Economics and Technology Research Institute at China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), all gave presentations, for which the Powerpoints are available on Arctic Frontiers’ website. Yang’s presentation (which is especially fascinating to read through) noted,

“If the ice sheets of Arctic Greenland and Antarctic all melt, coastline of China, would retreat as much as 400km inland and the most populated and prosperous areas, such as Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Tianjin etc., would be totally submerged.”

Disastrous, indeed – and China would also have to find a new venue for the annual China Mining Expo in Tianjin. It would also have to find a new place to base the operational headquarters for General Nice Development Limited, which are located in Tianjin. The Chinese company, one of the biggest coal and iron ore importers in China, is the new backer for the formerly bankrupt London Mining, the company that wants to mine iron at Greenland’s Isua project.

Of the Chinese officials’ speeches at Arctic Frontiers, the CNPC president’s was the most widely covered. Outlets like Newsweek announced that China was “going polar.” Xiansheng stated that although China didn’t have any independent oil and gas exploration projects in the Arctic, “We will cooperate with other companies if there’s a chance….We are just starting.” This shouldn’t have really been news to anyone, though, for almost exactly one year prior to his talk, China won the license to explore for oil off Iceland. Dreki forms only one place, too, where China is assisting with Arctic oil and gas development. The Yamal LNG project, in which China National Petroleum Corporation has a 20 percent stake, is another.

February 2015: Another (lunar) year begins.

The moon over northeast Greenland. Photo: Michael Studinger/NASA Earth Observatory

The moon over northeast Greenland. Photo: Michael Studinger/NASA Earth Observatory

“We were inspired by the instructions of President Xi Jinping.”

So said Wang Hailang, vice leader of one of China’s Antarctic research teams, on February 18 as his country celebrated thirty years of activity on the southernmost continent. The fact that President Xi traveled all the way to Hobart, China’s new gateway to Antarctica, and stepped aboard Xue Long symbolizes the growing importance of the polar regions to China’s leadership.

A year of Chinese activities in the polar regions concludes as the Snow Dragon looks forward to a new one in which China likely hopes that it will not be treated like a black sheep in the Arctic. If it is, such treatment will more likely stem from the media than Arctic states (Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s media snub aside). Back in November, The Arctic Institute posted an insightful article on exactly this matter entitled, “How We Learned to Stop Worrying About China’s Arctic Ambitions.” If we cease to be inordinately concerned about China’s polar activities and instead give them the same amount of scrutiny as those of other countries, that will actually allow a more level-headed analysis of what the world’s largest country is doing at the extreme latitudes in the Year of the Sheep.

Will China be the Arctic's black or white sheep? Photo: Atli Harðarson/Flickr

Will China be the Arctic’s black or white sheep? Photo: Atli Harðarson/Flickr