It’s the dirty, dark little secret as to why most people are here. Interest in the Arctic has come and gone in waves over the decades as the price of natural resources rises and falls, and right now there is a major resurgence. Despite the economic downturn of ’08, prices for coal, natural gas, and oil have rebounded to a point that makes it feasible to extract them from the Arctic. As I walk around doing my daily work I can see that this place is bleeding resources: streams expose 20-meter coal beds, high-grade iron ore is pouring out of the hills. There’s an unreal abundance of expensive things that humans like and it’s all just sitting here at the surface. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to get to.
Mining and operations in the north face a number of difficulties not found down south like permafrost, extreme seasonality, and a lack of facilities. But the key inhibiting factor for development is isolation, which can be broken down into two parts: distance and sea ice. Distance is something that can’t change – it will still be a damn long way to the mainland no matter what happens. Sea ice is another story. After a global minimum in sea ice extent in 2007, each successive year has resulted in more of the Arctic Ocean remaining ice-free for longer. This means that sea transport (and the Northwest passage) is now becoming very much a reality for industry. The only way to make a profit from coal in the Arctic is as a bulk commodity – massive extraction and a near continuous chain of shipments running from north to south during the ice-free summer months. While coal is much cheaper to mine down south, the Canadian Arctic may have one of the largest coal beds in all of North America. Over my last three seasons here I’ve seen many exploration teams with maps dividing up the islands I feel so affectionately for. They head into the field searching for their rocks and generally come back quite successful. While they’re usually all very nice people, I can’t help but inwardly wish them failure in their search.
My distaste for mining in this environment comes from knowing how vulnerable these ecosystems are to the slightest disturbance. No development here would be impact-free and any amount of damage would likely be permanent. When 80-year old trees here are as thick as my thumb or a single tractor trail lasts for over 40 years the idea that this ecosystem could recover from an environmental disaster is laughable. Growth is slow and life here is hard. The ecosystems here don’t possess the same resiliency as those down south, as sluggish rates of growth and the short summer season limit how much recovery can happen in any given year. I even feel bad when I leave deep footprints. Industry proponents and environmentalists bicker back and forth about the scale of environmental damage that is guaranteed to come. While it’s not likely that the two sides will ever agree on environmental principles, perhaps those that want to save the Arctic should try arguing a different point: economics.
Much like how oil extraction in the Canadian Tar Sands is not profitable when market prices are less than $60/barrel, the same economic danger rests on the development of the true north. Booms and busts have happened here in past decades and (most) everyone is aware that things could shut down again at the drop of a hat. Relics of old, half-finished projects litter the tundra – roads that connect nothing, half-constructed buildings, and bridges to nowhere. This is what makes it hard to predict how serious development is up here. Ignoring the ridiculous hot air about Canadian sovereignty crap coming out of Ottawa, the only real interest is economic development. This expansion is a large gamble as everything that happens here will be more reliant on high commodity prices than the rest of the world. And even if the boom of the Arctic finally happens, can we call it a success?
This was a question posed at a panel discussion on resource development at the International Polar Year conference in Montreal this April. There were two industry representatives, two scientists, and an aboriginal community leader (the mayor of Barrow, Alaska). After two hours of veiled words and empty phrases it was time for audience questions. A listener stood up and asked the mayor of Barrow, “Let’s say the oil industry meets all the safety standards, contributes what you’re asking for towards community development and employment, and there’s minimal damage to the environment – is this even a future you want?” The mayor responded, “I’m not sure.”
People live by the motto “not in my backyard”. Even though it may seem empty and desolate, I can guarantee you that the Arctic is still someone’s backyard. I can only hope that the coming economic moves are done with restraint.