Tanker traffic

There are various other ways in which the Arctic's natural environment could be imperilled by the gradual encroachment of the outside world. As the previous chapter pointed out, the retreat of sea ice is already opening up the Northwest Passage to international shipping, and this means that a nightmare scenario, one that haunts everyone's imagination, could easily come true. This is the very real threat of an accident involving an oil or natural gas tanker as it passes through the Northwest Passage or along the Northern Sea Route towards its marketplace. Any such accident always inflicts enormous devastation, but its impact would be all the more tragic if it affected what is still, in many places, a wilderness area.

As a previous chapter has pointed out, Arctic waters may be attractive to shipping because in the short or immediate term they are likely to be less congested than other stretches of sea such as the Malacca Straits. But accidents or collisions could still happen for much the same reasons as anywhere else.12 In the coming decades, the amount of global tanker traffic is expected to increase considerably, creating highly congested shipping lanes in every part of the world.13 This means that, purely in terms of its weight of traffic, the Arctic's waters could eventually become like the Bosphorus, the straits through which oil and natural gas are ferried as carriers make their way from the wells of the Caspian Sea, move across the Black Sea and then head into the Mediterranean. Every day more than 2,500 vessels, around 30 of which are tankers, pass through these straits, and as a British journalist has pointed out, many of these tankers are 'rustbuckets that shouldn't be at sea, let alone passing right through the middle of a city of 15 million people' and, to make matters much worse, are 'often skippered by drunken incompetents'.14 There have been a number of very serious accidents here. In 1979 a collision created a massive explosion that rocked Istanbul with a ferocious force, shaking buildings and shattering windows while spilling nearly 100,000 tonnes of burning oil into the sea; similar tragedies could equally unfold in Arctic waters.

One scenario that inspires particular dread is the very real prospect of a terrorist attack on what would be seen as a new and highly tempting target: a tanker carrying liquefied gas. Terrorists generally don't target pipelines because the flow of oil or gas can be quickly cut off, but an explosion on board a liquefied gas tanker would have a disastrous impact. One report, published by an American consultancy, concluded that in a worst case scenario a successful attack on a tanker could result in as many as 8,000 deaths and 20,000 injuries.15 Most worryingly, these enormous ships could make relatively easy targets for a rocket-propelled grenade or for explosive devices that are detonated by terrorists using a small boat to pull alongside their target. It was just such an audacious attack that Al Qaeda bombers made with considerable success against the USS Cole in October 2000.

Another nightmare scenario is the spillage not of crude oil or liquid petroleum but of radioactive waste. In 2001, President Vladimir Putin caused deep alarm among environmentalists by signing a new law that allowed Russia to import nuclear fuel from other countries for storage and reprocessing. From the Kremlin's point of view this seemed like a certain money-spinner, earning up to $15 billion over 10 years at a time when the Russian economy was still depressed. What really bothered environmentalists was not so much that the nuclear waste would be buried on Russian soil, on the island of Novaya Zemlya in the Barents Sea, but that it would move by tanker through Arctic waters to get there. This meant that any spillage would have a devastating environmental impact. 'The trade of toxic waste across national boundaries is a very bad idea. Russia has changed its law to allow the import of waste, we should change ours to forbid its export', as Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth put it. 'This must not be allowed to happen.'16

The people of Alaska certainly have better reason than most to fear what tanker traffic in the Northwest Passage could inflict. For one of the most devastating oil spills of recent years took place in Prince William Sound late one night in March 1989, when a giant oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez, struck an underground reef with devastating effects. Within just 5 hours at least 11 million gallons of crude oil had been spilled into the water (some pressure groups claim that the true figure was much higher) and eventually covered around 11,000 square miles of ocean while affecting 1,200 miles of coastline.

The region was a natural wilderness and a habitat for all sorts of wildlife, including salmon, sea otters, seals and numerous seabirds, whose populations suffered appallingly from the spillage. And although thousands of local people worked round the clock to clean up the damage, an independent study by American government scientists, undertaken in 2007, concluded that nearly two decades on, the soil on the shoreline still contained at least 26,000 gallons of oil that 'was disappearing only very slowly, at an annual rate of around four per cent'.17 Perhaps the only consolation was that 80 per cent of the cargo stayed on board the crippled ship, which narrowly avoided capsizing.

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