Arctic LNG tankers to sail a rapidly melting north

Canada may be losing global race to get natural gas to Asia, as concerns loom large about wilder weather due to climate change

Arctic LNG carrier
Arctic LNG carrier
LNG carrier ship - Mitsubishi Heavy Industries

The once dangerous and inhospitable Arctic Ocean – home to ice flows and frigid temperatures at the top of the planet -- that thwarted all but the bravest of sea captains -- is now opening up for the first time to a regular shipping route.

And on board?  Liquefied natural gas (LNG).

A Vancouver-operated LNG shipping firm – Teekay – announced Wednesday $2.1 billion in contracts to build six colossal icebreakers that can make the voyages, while keeping the gas super cooled to -160 Celsius. 

It’s a sign of how globally important this new class of fossil fuel has become.

“LNG is the energy of the future.  It’s a lot cleaner than oil.  It doesn’t have the political problems that nuclear has.  And it is has a yield that puts solar and wind power to shame,” said Professor Rob Huebert, an Arctic political scientist with the University of Calgary.

Unlike bitumen or crude oil spills at sea, the enviro-risk of LNG is feared less, because the fuel evaporates in accidents.  Crews however could asphyxiate from the suddenly vapourized gases, says the U.S. Energy Department.  

Arctic LNG carrier

Arctic LNG carrier - Dynagas

But the announced Arctic LNG ships will not be plying Canada’s waters, nor moving Canadian gas.  They are bound for northern Russia – to the “Yamal LNG Project” -- to export Siberian gas to energy-thirsty mega-cities in China and Japan.

Huebert thinks Canada’s LNG industry is acting too slowly, in a global race to supply Asia and Europe where prices are much higher than in North America.

“We simply just can’t get our act together.  We’re sitting on a complete gold mine of LNG, but the ‘not in my backyard syndrome’ means we can’t get the necessary infrastructure built,” said Huebert Wednesday from Calgary.

B.C. now has an astonishing 15 proposals to build LNG marine-export terminals, with the latest one announced Tuesday for Vancouver Island. 

Only one northwest B.C. project – Kitimat LNG – has been granted an environmental permit.  Nearby Prince Rupert LNG and Pacific Northwest LNG projects are now applying.

Map of BC LNG export terminal project proposals - BC Goverment

The rest are in regulatory limbo, as northern communities, First Nations and environmentalists mount increasingly vocal opposition to the proposed terminals and pipelines, to move the fracked gas from B.C.’s northeast.

Meanwhile, some see this new Arctic LNG push as a sign of how badly we’ve drifted from action on global warming.

“The irony of climate change making fossil fuels more available is not lost on me,” said John Bennett, Sierra Club Canada’s executive director in Ottawa. 

Arctic LNG carrier

Arctic LNG carrier - Sovcomflot

Climate change blamed for hurricanes, floods

He said climate change is wreaking havoc on Canada now – with floods on the prairies, and a devastating hurricane in Atlantic Canada. 

“[LNG] is the greenest fossil fuel – but we can’t afford to burn it because… it means Saskatchewan and Manitoba are under water.  And the very first hurricane of the season has devastated New Brunswick and Nova Scotia," said Bennett.

Hurricane Arthur blew up the east coast on the weekend, leaving nearly 200,000 Canadians without power. 

Likewise, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Manitoba’s flood disaster on Sunday, where crops are destroyed, and communities have been evacuated.  Today, Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair also toured the area.  Five hundred soldiers have been deployed to help rescue communities.

“So yeah, we get to ship oil and gas through the Arctic, but what are the costs of constantly repairing infrastructure so people can have water and electricity?” asked Bennett.

NASA says 2014 was the fifth worst melt of the Arctic’s multi-year sea ice on satellite record.  Last year, was similarly dismal.

Sea ice scientists predict an ice-free North Pole – for the first time in thousands of years, perhaps millions -- sometime between now and 2030.

Hubert says new shipping technology is as much responsible for the LNG Arctic ships' rise, as the fast melting ice.

Teekay and its Chinese LNG shipping partner says the LNG icebreakers will be built in South Korea.

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