Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Canada's icebreaker gap

What's the hottest thing in the ship market today? Try icebreakers.
A new cold war is breaking out in the race for Arctic oil, natural gas and minerals, and it involves front-line icebreakers. Russia has seven and the United States has three, if you count one that's laid up in Seattle and won't be seaworthy for a year.

The competition is heating up because of global warming and high energy prices. They've made the Arctic coastline and seafloor, despite their harsh climate, one of the most appealing places in the world for energy exploration. Much the same goes for the gold, platinum, copper and other metals found along the Arctic coast and likely in its continental shelves.

The increased traffic that Arctic exploitation entails will mean more work for icebreakers, Adm. Thad W. Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard, told a House of Representatives committee recently. So will retreating ice, which has opened the Northwest Passage (over Canada) and the Northern Sea Route (above Russia) in summer to container ships and oil tankers.

Not only is Russia's fleet more numerous, it's also nuclear-powered and its icebreakers are bigger. The biggest, named 50 Years of Victory, can power through more than 9 feet of solid ice without slowing down. Ice thicker than 6.5 feet reduces the strongest U.S icebreaker, the diesel-powered Polar Sea, to backing up and ramming.

The differences give Russia a vastly expanded range through Arctic ice, which covers an area as big as California and Texas combined. And that ice locks up nearly a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The article contains a line which should cause a few ears to perk up.

It's natural that Russia — and Canada, for that matter — would care more about ice-breaking than the United States would, retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Robert North said in an interview. Both countries have more ports and citizens and longer shorelines above the Arctic Circle than the United States does. That puts Russia and Canada, which has six icebreakers, at an advantage as Arctic exploration intensifies.
Whoa! Hold it. Canada has ice breakers but nothing to compete with the Russian fleet. And the Harper government promise of armed (naval) slushbreakers (they will be polar cat 5 ships) aren't going to fill the bill.

We once had an icebreaker planned. In fact, it would have been the world's largest. But it never made it off the drawing board. Planned in 1985 by the conservative government of Brian Mulroney, that same government cancelled the program just weeks before it was due to commence construction in 1989.

So, along comes the Harper government and promises to build a new polar class icebreaker by 2017. They've promised $720 million in the 2008 budget plan to build it. There's only one problem. To build a Polar 8 ice breaker today, after adjusting for inflation, would cost at least $1.4 billion. The Harperites are suggesting it will be done for half that and in fact is virtually the same amount estimated in 1989... in 1989 dollars. ($700 million)

That's not fiscal responsibility. It's dishonesty.

H/T West End Bob

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