Friday, May 17, 2013

Northwest Passage a rival to the Panama Canal? WILL CANADA PROVIDED SIMILAR INFRASTRUCTURES? WHEN?

The recent article in your paper about the Northwest Passage brings to mind the similarities between the northern passage and the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal opened in 1914. Apart from the many millions it cost to build, thousands of workers perished during its construction.

Its effectiveness has contributed to the rapid growth of the world’s economy. Canada’s Northwest Passage will likewise provide direct routes to the world’s trade centres. A voyage from Europe to Asia would save some 7,000 miles using the northern route.

If this new asset is to bring benefits to the North, then we would have to be prepared. It’s not likely that it will cost thousands of lives, but it could have a devastating effect on the lives of those who live along its shores unless safeguards are in place to ensure an orderly and beneficial outcome.

Canada has to be ready for the day that is fast approaching when the Northwest Passage will be open all year round. That could happen faster than anyone thought.

The question of sovereignty will no doubt enter into the argument. Canada claims ownership, however the U.S. and the Russians will argue that they have rights to use the passage.

No matter who wins that battle, the facts are clear. Most of this sea will be in Nunavut territory. The governments of Canada and the North should be prepared. Hundreds of ships will want to use the passage: container ships, military vessels, cruise ships, private yachts and oil tankers.

Toll fees should be in place to cover the cost of navigation aids, pollution, oil spills and so on. Just as they are for the Panama Canal, docking facilities will have to be provided. Oil tankers should be forbidden to use the waterway.

The known quantities of natural gas in the Arctic Islands are estimated at more than 300 trillion cubic feet. This fuel will suddenly become accessible. Gas processing plants will have to be built to extract and process this precious resource. Such facilities will create thousands of jobs. These isolated communities will find themselves thrust unwillingly, in most cases, into a world of commerce and chaos.

In the meantime, serious thought must be given to the management of our precious wildlife. It is becoming evident that life is changing now for the polar bear. Who will protect them from this onslaught? How can they and other creatures of the North be protected?

During a period in the 1960s, we witnessed the great push to develop the North and the trail blazed by the Progressive Conservative government. A policy was established and became known as “Roads to Resources,” led by former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. The opposition called it “Roads from Igloo to Igloo.”

A rail link was established to Pine Point, a small town in the Northwest Territories, where a lead-zinc mine had been developed. The rail line tied into the Canadian national rail system.

It is possible that one day this rail link could cross the Barrens, connecting it to the rail line that runs to the Port of Churchill, Manitoba, thereby opening up the entire region to development.

This hitherto remote region probably contains vast deposits of minerals, vast quantities of gold and uranium and countless other minerals which have not yet been explored because of the remoteness of the area.

Docks along the Northwest Passage could become one of the three most important sea routes in the world: the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, and now the Northwest Passage.

Canada, at one time, found itself in the forefront of trade routes. Winnipeg suddenly became the focus of a new route to the Orient. Travelling to Asia across North America had long been a plan. With the new rail routes through the Rockies, linking the Great Lakes was a concept that was well into the planning stages. Vast sums of money poured in. Construction began on a large scale, hotels, restaurants, commercial buildings.

Preparations were begun to have Winnipeg an important centre. This was not to be. The U.S. army, under direct orders from the president, managed to complete the Panama Canal and by 1914, it opened for business. Suddenly Winnipeg fell from grace. Goods could be shipped to China on the new canal. Winnipeg lost the battle.

There is no question that global warming is happening, whether the cause is due to human activity is another unresolved issue. There have been periods over the life of Mother Earth when other ice ages retreated. Henry Ford was not around in those days — perhaps it was dinosaurs and their CO2 emissions that caused the warming. Fossils of camels have been found recently on Ellesemere Island recently.

Whatever it was, it is happening again. We are getting warmer and the Northwest Passage is going to be navigable for many months of the year, if not all of the year.

The Panama Canal provides passage for more than 14,000 ships per year. Many of them have to wait days before they can transit the canal. The Northwest Passage would be faster for them to navigate. There would be no locks to hinder their passage. The water would be salt, whereas the Panama is fresh water, which requires different loading factors for the ship before its journey.

Setting up a system of monitoring this waterway will create jobs and a whole new industry. How will we manage it? The Panama Canal charges huge fees per passage. The highest fee paid recently was $141,344.91 for cruise ship. The lowest fee paid was 36 cents for a Mr. Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928 at an event that it is not likely to occur at the Northwest Passage any time soon.

Canada has a natural channel. We have to establish safeguards, infrastructure, emergency measures, rigid guidelines, docks, airports, perhaps a rail link to meet up with the Churchill rail and grain port. Military bases will have to be created at each end and facilities for monitoring ships and their cargo. Fees will have to be established based on the type of cargo and risk factors.

We will need new and powerful icebreakers and Alaska will be part of this asset. The shipping of ore from Mary River will give that operation more viable routes to their markets and increase its viability. It will also allow easier access to world markets for its valuable ore.

Cruise ships and private yachts are now using the passage and they are not paying a fee yet. Canada, not just Nunavut, has this valuable asset, which due to climate change is quickly becoming navigable. To take advantage of this opportunity we have to be prepared.

Bryan Pearson

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