Canada's got big plans for the Arctic, staking its claim further and further north as rapid melting opens up new opportunities for mining, drilling and shipping. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is clearly one of those peoples who looks at a worsening crisis and sees economic opportunity.
But what those plans don't involve, apparently, is any sort of long-term plan for managing the region's environmental as commercial interests pour in -- which means the Arctic's problems may be just beginning.
That's the gist of a new report released Tuesday by Julie Gelfand, Canada's environment commissioner. It found that the government has failed to adequately survey Arctic waters, that its icebreaking services have declined even as shipping has increased, among other issues at odds with safe resource development. "Overall," the report concludes, "we found that there is no long-term national vision or coordinated departmental strategies to support safe marine transportation in the Arctic."
Traffic way up north is low for the time being -- there were only about 350 voyages made along the region's 1oo,000 miles of coastline in 2013 -- but already, it found, there have been incidents of "groundings, capsizings or sinkings, collisions and damage by ice" in Arctic waters. "If marine traffic continues to increase as expected," the report adds, "marine incidents could become more frequent." This is no idle threat: as Motherboard points out, 90 billion barrels of oil are believed to be under the North Pole, as well as 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. A large spill is arguably inevitable, and a U.S. report found that we're totally unprepared to prevent such an event from becoming an unmitigated disaster.
That attitude was shared by Member of Parliament and NDP environment critic Megan Leslie: "We have delicate ecosystems in the Arctic," she told the CBC. "Further to that, there is a really small window right now of when we could actually do that cleanup. We've seen a lot of discussion about drilling in the Arctic and that's one of the major concerns is that if something were to happen, the ice comes pretty quickly. Is there enough time to even clean up the damage that could be done?"
Also disappointing, Leslie added, is that Harper remains unconcerned about how climate change will affect the Arctic. His is an administration, remember, that has been extremely non-receptive to international efforts to mitigate climate climate, where government scientists need permission to tweet basic facts about climate change. And the report also finds that not only is Canada not on a path to meet its 2020 climate targets of reducing getting greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels, its emissions are on course to remain virtually unchanged.
“In many key areas that we looked at," Gelfand said in a statement, "it is not clear how the government intends to address the significant environmental challenges that future growth and development will likely bring about." That's bad news for all of us.