Talks are accelerating on binding pollution and safety rules for shipping through Arctic waters, a long-delayed objective that could assuage Canadian concerns as climate change makes the Northwest Passage increasingly attractive to foreign vessels.
A draft of this polar code should be completed shortly by members of the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, and take effect as early as 2016, shipping associations in Norway and Canada predict.
Russia's Northern Sea Route and Canada's Northwest Passage are two Arctic thoroughfares that can cut shipping time for foreign vessels travelling between Asia and Europe. Shrinking summer sea ice, a consequence of global warming, is expected to make transits through both routes easier in the decades ahead.
Canada lacks sufficient ships and resources to keep a close watch on shipping everywhere in its huge Arctic archipelago, and so any measures to require foreign vessels to abide by stiffer rules could reduce the chances of environmental disasters in the North.
"Our government strongly supports the development of a robust polar code to better protect our pristine northern environment and heritage," Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in a statement provided to The Globe and Mail. She's also the minister responsible for the Arctic Council, an international forum on the polar region that Canada is currently chairing.
The polar code will lay out the structural requirements of vessels – such as ice-strengthened hulls – that navigate Arctic waters, as well set strict rules for as pollution prevention, safety and operations.
There were 30 transits of Canada's Northwest Passage in 2012 and 22 in 2013 – two-thirds or more of these by foreign vessels. While it's not experiencing the same rush of traffic as Russia's Northern Sea Route, the Northwest Passage is seeing significantly increased traffic from 30 years ago.
Last September, the Danish-owned Nordic Orion became the first commercial bulk carrier to sail the Northwest Passage. The company that owns the ship said it was able to save about $80,000 in fuel costs by taking the passage instead of going through the Panama Canal. Nordic Bulk Carriers is planning more trips for 2014.
The Nordic Orion's owners worked closely with the Canadian government, but there's no guarantee future shippers will abide by Canada's Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act or other federal rules.
Lloyd's Market Association, which represents a group of insurance underwriters, warned this month that the risks for polar shipping "remain extreme," and said it has concerns that the rate at which maritime traffic is increasing in Arctic waters is "outstripping policy makers' ability to create a legislative framework in the high north."
As the underwriters note, satellite navigation does not function properly in the region and rescue services take a long time to arrive. "Accurate marine charts are almost impossible to obtain but despite the obvious hazards, the market frequently receives intelligence about vessels with inadequate ice-class operating around the fringes of the Arctic ice sheet," Lloyd's Market Association said.
Sturla Henriksen, the director general of the Norwegian Shipowners' Association, told Reuters Tuesday that a draft of the polar code could be finalized by IMO members this week. "It's a cold place, it has a hostile climate, it's enshrouded in darkness half of the year, weather is violent and extreme, distances are vast, the area is remote from large population centres, it's sparsely populated and it's far from basic infrastructure," Mr. Henriksen added.
Officials at the Canadian Shipowners Association said they expect the code to be incorporated into existing conventions by the end of the year. If countries keep on schedule, the plan would be for the polar code to take effect by July 1, 2016.