Ground zero

Bering Strait

The Bering Strait/NASA

While some in the U.S. and much of the rest of the West fret about carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions and global warming, the Chinese – already the by-far world leaders in CO production  – and the Russians continue their charge into a warm new world.

At some point, this is sure to catch the attention of global activists and journalists focused on U.S President Donald Trump as the climate change devil, but it should be of growing concern to Alaskans now because of the immediate environmental risks to the 49th state.

Russia’s Rostam State Corporation is reporting Northern Sea Route shipping is up 29 percent since November 2018 and petrochemicals comprise a large and growing segment of the tonnage passing along the country’s northern coast.

“The main increase in cargo flow occurred due to the Yamal LNG (liquified natural gas) project, created on the basis of the South Tambey gas condensate field,” the company said. “(But) there was also an increase in the amount of oil shipped from the Arctic Shipping Oil Terminal of the Novoportovskoye Gates of the Arctic.”

As this traffic increases, so do the chances for accidents in the remote Chukchi and Bering seas along Alaska’s wild and undeveloped Western coast where there exists almost no U.S. capacity for dealing with marine disasters and little Russian capacity.

On the U.S. side, there are mainly low-lying villages already threatened by rising seas as the ocean warms.

Edge of the world

As most Alaskans know, the Northern Sea Route bends south in the Chukchi Sea and heads through the 51-mile-wide Bering Strait in the middle of which sit the Diomede Islands.

Were an oil tanker to suffer an accident there and spill oil, there is little help of any sort or any clean-up resources within hundreds of miles. In that context, it is worth remembering how much worse the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Prince William Sound could have been.

After the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in 1989, it gushed an estimated 10.8 million gallons of crude, but it could have spilled almost five times that amount if the Exxon San Fransisco hadn’t been available to off-load the Valdez after the accident. Bligh Reef is only 25 miles from a busy oil terminal in the Port of Valdez.

Fairway Rock just south of Little Diomede in the Strait is hundreds of miles from nowhere. Were a tanker to run aground there, not much of anything could be done by anyone.

The U.S. has talked about beefing up search and rescue and oil response operations in the north, but to date this has been largely just talk. The U.S. Coast Guard presence is limited to a 14-member, forward operating location (FOL) at Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow.

“They provide coverage to the entire northwestern portion of Alaska. This area of responsibility spans approximately from Bethel to the northern Alaskan-Canadian border,” according to the agency. 

That is a distance of more than 1,200 miles, farther than from New York to Key West, Fla. And unlike the East Coast, which has a number of major ports between New York and Key West, the Alaska coast in question has no port.

Not that it would matter much. The Utqiagvik FOL has no vessel.

National interests

Both Russia and China have talked the climate change talk, but both likewise have economic interests in an ice-free Arctic. That makes it hard to tell how whether their climate stands are real or just so much hot air.

“After years of procrastination, Russia, the world’s fourth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has officially joined the Paris climate agreement, which it signed in 2016,” Bloomberg reported in September. “It shows that President Vladimir Putin’s views of climate change are evolving and he wants his government to do more.”

“Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron have signed a pact recommitting to the 2015 Paris Agreement, just days after the US formally withdrew from the landmark global treaty to fight climate change,” CNN reported earlier this month with XI pledging to “push forth the Paris Climate Accords in response to climate change.”

The Paris Agreement is the holy grail of climate activists although it hasn’t meant much to date. Global carbon emissions were up almost 3 percent last year. Canada, which embraced climate action early on, has had little luck in reducing emissions. The country now emits about 35 percent more COthan in 1990, and Canada has joined the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Australia among the world leaders in emissions per capita. 

Only Central and Eastern Europe – aided by near-zero population growth, walkable cities that in many cases trace their roots back to medieval times when human-power was the main form of transportation and governments committed to energy independence – have shown much success in reducing CO2.

Thanks to nuclear power, France’s per capita emissions are almost half those of neighboring Germany and less than a fifth those of the U.S. and Canada. The world’s largest net exporter of electricity, France draws about 75 percent of it from 58 nuclear reactors.

The Europeans can afford to embrace climate action because they are in a position where the economics work for them. The situation in Russia is almost the opposite, and it is unclear in China.

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Like a former territory

Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on oil exports, much like Alaska’s, and Russian political leaders have shown indications they believe the declining Arctic Ocean ice of a warmer world will aid their bottom line.

The Northern Sea Route cuts weeks off the shipping time from the Russian port of Murmansk to Asia via the Bering Strait, and China has become a big backer of Russian LNG plans for the Arctic.

It isn’t just about petrochemicals, however.

“Russia needs an economy overhaul that will reduce the contribution of oil to its budget revenues,” Irina Slav has reported at OilPrice. “(But) it’s certainly not as dependent on oil revenues as some observers would like to believe. In fact, Russia is becoming the dominant force on another commodity market: wheat. Agriculture as a sector is a top priority for the Kremlin.” 

Unfortunately, Russia’s now world-leading wheat production only raises more questions about Russian climate policy. Predictions on what global warming will do to Russian wheat run both ways with some models projecting increased yields thanks to warmer weather and others projecting decreased yields due to droughts associated with warming.

What the Russians believe is hard to know, but Putin only two years ago was publicly talking about warming being a positive for the Russian economy.  And earlier this month, Haaretz, a respected liberal newspaper in Israel, was pondering whether “Climate Change Could Make Russia Great Again.”

Reporter Jonathon Jacobson envisioned a “Russian scheme designed to challenge the global trade map as it is being drawn via policy decisions by the West….Putin doesn’t have the quantity of resources possessed by his superpower neighbor to the east, but the rabbit in his hat is global warming itself. Beyond the new trade routes that could open up (across the Arctic), Russia will also profit in another way from the planet’s warming: accessibility to land for agricultural production.”

Stephen Wegren, an expert in Russian agriculture, told Jacobson that Russian “policy has evolved to include food exports. They want to become one of the main food exporters in the world, an agricultural superpower.

“Putin has charged the agricultural sector with the task of reaching $45 billion in food exports by 2024. If they do achieve it, this would place them in the global top 10 exporters.”

And a lot of those exports might well move to market via the Northern Sea Route only increasing the odds for shipping disasters that could impact Alaska.

All about business

As for China – Alaska’s upwind neighbor now producing nearly twice as much CO2 as the U.S. on an annual basis – it would appear more concerned about political stability than global CO2.

And cheap energy appears a key part of the political picture. The Global Energy Monitor reported this month that China is in the midst of a major expansion of coal-fired power plants.

“Today, 147.7 GW of coal plants are either under active construction or under suspension and likely to be revived—an amount nearly equal to the existing coal power capacity of the European Union (150 GW),” the global energy monitor said in a report titled simply “Out of Step.” 

“The continued growth of China’s coal fleet and consideration of plans to significantly raise the nation’s coal power cap show that while the country is often hailed as a clean energy leader, the momentum of coal power expansion has yet to be halted.”

The report is chilling for those who fear warming.

From 2018 to June 2019, the Chinese added about six-times as much coal-powered energy production as the rest of the world combined decommissioned, the report said. It warned that “if China continues to increase total coal power capacity through 2035 (as proposed), its coal power generation alone will be more than three times as large as the global limit on coal power use determined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to keep warming well below 2°C.”

Canadian climate activist Patricia Adams, who is associated with the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation, warned of this last year and suggested the President Barack Obama-Xi embrace of the Paris accords during the former’s presidency was little but a scam on China’s part “to secure a share of a $100-billion green fund…while promoting exports of green technology.”

With that financial incentive gone, she wrote in a Foundation report, Chinese energy policy is once again “focused on the Communist Party’s two primary domestic needs: securing the energy to fuel China’s economy and reducing the smog that undermines public confidence in the party. Failure to accomplish those two goals would represent an existential threat to the party.”

When it comes to energy, she said, “coal remains China’s mainstay. Demand has been driven up by the combined forces of economic growth, higher power consumption, natural gas shortfalls, and reduced hydropower.”

To solve the coal-related smog problem, China has restricted smog-producing industrial facilities near key cities and shifted coal-burning and smog-causing production to parts of the country where air quality is, in Adams’ word, “a lower political priority.”

The good news is that China is still continuing efforts to shift electric production to natural gas, which produces about half as much CO2 as coal.

The bad news, at least for Alaska, is that a lot of that gas – along with crude oil, wheat and more – could be coming through the Bering Strait aboard Russian ships, and the more ships traffic the area, the greater the chances for accidents.

Add in those Bering Sea villages facing the inevitable need to move to higher ground, and the Russia-China dealings would appear to present the 49th state with none of the benefits and potentially significant costs.



























11 replies »

  1. Just like Bryan I have spent a good deal of time in China. Not just in Beijing but all over the country. As Bryan says, they care not one wit about the climate change hoax. But they do care about dominating the world economy. And they are dong that by producing lots of scientist and engineers.

    You will find no SJW’s or safe spaces in China’s educational institutions. There is no worry about diversity. They don’t care if an engineer is white or black or male or female. They just cull through them all to find the very best. In this sense they are a meritocracy. They also send lots of students to the US to study. But you won’t find them out protesting against white privilege or some statue of a guy who’s been dead for 150 years. They are studying physics, metallurgy, electrical and other engineering disciplines. They are coming for us and we are twiddling our collective thumbs.

    Instead of moaning about something like “man-made” climate change, which is not even a proven problem, why not do something tangible. Pick up trash along a road or on the beach. Take a kid fishing or hiking so that they learn to love the outdoors. That will do far more to make our planet a better place to live than all the clamor about climate change will ever do.

    • Mark, well said “They are coming for us and we are twiddling our collective thumbs.” I dont care if I was in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Suzhou, Wuxi, or Hangzhou. Skip all the communisn stuff, the one word that came to mind was the “future”. They are focused, disciplined, orderly, and value education. Their economy is growing at an alarming rate. They do not subscribe to the PC culture and all the garbage that goes along with it. Not only do they want to dominate the world economy, they want to dominate the world as a whole. They will use our system against us like every other special interest group. They will garner support from Communist/Socialist sympathizing Democrats. They will prey upon their cowardice and disdain towards America. Their goal is 2049. They laugh at men in dresses and special interests, they laugh at Affirmative Action, they laugh at Global Warming, they laugh at diversity/multi-culturalism, they laugh at millions of illegals for votes, they laugh at 20yr death row inmates, they laugh at our inner cities and crime, they laugh at our meth problems, and they laugh at our “guilt” and greed.

      • Bryan,
        If you and Mark are so concerned about China “coming for us”…why do neither of you mention how China is buying up key infrastructure across America?
        Why is the U.S. government allowing China to buy ports, public transit and other key systems in our country?
        Why is the fed selling China “T notes” at an alarming rate?
        “The quick answer is that as of January 2018, the Chinese owned $1.17 trillion of U.S. debt or about 19% of the total $6.26 trillion in Treasury bills, notes, and bonds held by foreign countries.”
        China is also sweeping in an buying everything from east coast hog farms to large tracts of land that was affected by disasters in many states.
        “China is taking over American transit, one government procurement contract at a time.”
        These are far more dangerous than the threat of war or invasion…
        There are also a ton of wealthy Chinese Oligarchs than own huge shares in American tech companies…the list goes on and on!
        There will be no country left for them to take if “they” already own the land, infrastructure, tech, bonds, and ports.

      • Steve, my point and you couldnt have said it better. I think you explained both Mark and I’s concerns.

  2. “Thanks to nuclear power, France’s per capita emissions are almost half those of neighboring Germany and less than a fifth those of the U.S. and Canada. The world’s largest net exporter of electricity, France draws about 75 percent of it from 58 nuclear reactors.”

    If a person says they are concerned about climate change but also opposes new, safe, nuclear power generation, they are not an intellectually serious person.

  3. Craig, as you mentioned China is on a tear. Having just returned from China I can assure you there is no end in sight. I have NEVER witnessed the amount of growth and building as I have seen and NOT just in one city. It is EVERYWHERE! They even make jokes about “our countires bird is the crane, sky crane”.
    Unlike us, they are growing their economy by leaps and bounds and not being constrained by some phony “Global Warming” nonsense. Liberals point to “just look, China has signs in their hotel rooms that say ‘save water, use your towels twice’, which equates to they are doing their part. When in reality, China wants to save THEIR resources. They could careless about being taken by that fraud “Climate Change”. They look at AOC and the Democrat Party as morons and I agree with them.
    China recognizes coal as a cheap form of energy and cannot be bothered by silly liberal hysteria. I say good for them as scary as that sounds. 2049 is just around the corner and you haven’t seen anything yet.
    China is on an upward trajectory while we are on a downward spiral due to Democrat policies and constraints.

    • Bryan,
      China does not care about alot of things like FREE SPEECH or CIVIL LIBERTIES for example…just because China is burning coal and looking away from the Climate Change Emergency does not make it right…or the path for other nations to follow.

      • “Climate Change Emergency”?

        Let’s get serious about this emergency, recent studies have found that as much as 25% of all carbon emissions come from freshwater lakes, it’s time to ban freshwater lakes from the face of the earth. They generate far more emissions than any country and at 25% of all global emissions, they far outpace the land surface they cover. Deserts cover about 1/3 of the globe and they don’t emit anywhere near as much greenhouse gas as freshwater lakes.

        “The amount of greenhouse gases released from lakes by microbes and sunlight is huge. Initial estimates were about 9% of the net carbon released from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere—that is, the amount released over and above the Earth’s carbon-storing processes.
        But, thanks to improved measurements, recent research has revised the figure to as high as 25%. These numbers are substantial given that that lakes only comprise about 4% of the global land surface.”

        Yep, time get serious and get rid of the true culprit in all of this climate change emergency…freshwater lakes.

      • Well Steve O,
        At least you did not deny the “emergency” we are facing…
        Trying to divert away from the main contributors of greenhouse gases does not help the problem.
        Whatever happened to Americans leading by example?
        We both know the real culprits behind this problem:
        “Greenhouse gases trap heat and make the planet warmer.
        Human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years.
        The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the United States is from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.”

      • Steve S, what exactly is the “Climate Change Emergency”? How will we know when we have spent enough money or have averted this “emergency” you speak of?

      • Steve,

        Freshwater lakes have been identified as contributing as much as 25% OF ALL THE CARBON IN THE ATMOSPHERE. Pointing towards something that contributes 1/4 of all carbon in the atmosphere is in no way “Trying to divert away from the main contributors of greenhouse gases” it quite literally is pointing out one of THE major contributors, if not THE singular largest contributor. Trying to blame one single country for your so called emergency while ignoring the science that freshwater lakes contribute far, far more emissions to the atmosphere is shameful. If we are in fact in an emergency being a greenhouse gas denier will not help solve the problem. Freshwater lakes produce 1/4 of all the atmospheric carbon that people are saying is leading to a climate change emergency and you want to simply ignore it?

        This is an emergency right Steve, and in an emergency we need to take action. If you aren’t on board with draining all freshwater lakes and removing the 1/4 of all the carbon in the atmosphere generated by freshwater lakes, then I’m afraid you aren’t taking this emergency seriously enough.

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