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Arctic shipping remains a distant dream for now, Transport Minister says

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt makes an announcement on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.

Sean kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

All the enthusiastic talk about shipping through the Arctic will remain mostly just that – talk – for the foreseeable future, says Transport Minister Lisa Raitt.

During an appearance Tuesday in Washington, Raitt played down expectations that the Northwest Passage would become a viable shipping route any time soon – expectations stoked by the prospect of a changing climate opening up the famed route pursued by explorers centuries ago.

She bluntly offered a list of concerns – including from insurance companies who, she said, are the ones really calling the shots about what ships would be allowed to pass through the area.

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There are too many problems for now, including shallow passes and a lack of navigational markers, Raitt said. Any time savings offered by the shorter route would be negated if a ship got stuck, she added.

And then there's the frightening prospect of oil spills.

"I don't see it happening right now," Raitt said in a lengthy, freewheeling question-and-answer session at the Canadian American Business Council.

Nonetheless, the former head of the Toronto Port Authority said she remains enthusiastic about the possibility.

"I'm passionate about it. But I don't think it's a panacea, and I don't think the Panama Canal or the Suez Canal ... have any worries of competition from the Northwest Passage right now."

She said the complications with Arctic shipping for now will give policy makers ample time to prepare all the safety protocols necessary, to protect the pristine region from spills. Raitt also said she's looking forward to the release of a report this fall with recommendations on shipping north of the 60th parallel.

"I can tell you: one oil spill or accident in the Arctic is one visual you do not want to have in this world at all," Raitt said.

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"It's not just always about the economy. I can't believe I said that as a Conservative. But it's not always about the economy. You've got to balance it out with what's happening in terms of safety, and the environment too."

Successive Canadian governments, especially the current one, have pointed to an impending burst of Arctic activity as a source of national pride.

There have even been differences of opinion with other countries, including the U.S., about who would have sovereignty over the bustling new shipping routes.

For now, Raitt said, it's baby steps.

She said a coal shipment made it through the region faster than she expected last year. But Transport Canada watched that ship like a hawk, wary of any possible accident, she added.

Otherwise, she said, most of the shipping in the region consists of back-and-forth with supply ships coming up from the south.

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Raitt also hinted Tuesday that Russia's status within the Arctic Council might be under review. She said she couldn't speak to that file, because it belonged to Minister Leona Aglukkaq. But Raitt said her own department has cut off its points of contact with Russia as a result of the crisis in Ukraine.

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