* Polar short-cut applications up to 15 for 2011, 4 in 2010
* Climate change opens Arctic to oil firms, miners, shipping
By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent
TROMSOE, Norway, Jan 25 Russia predicted on
Tuesday a surge in voyages on an Arctic short-cut sea route in
2011 as a thaw linked to climate change opens the region even
more to shipping and oil and mining companies.
High metals and oil prices, linked to rising demand from
China and other emerging economies, is helping to spur interest
in the Arctic and the route between the Atlantic and Pacific
Oceans as an alternative to travelling via the Suez canal.
"In 2011 the shipping on the Northern Sea Route is going to
increase significantly," Mikhail Belkin, assistant director of
Russia's state-owned Rosatomflot, told a conference on "Arctic
Frontiers" in Tromsoe, north Norway.
He said that Rosatomflot, which sends one of its nine
atomic-powered ice-breakers to accompany each trip in case of
ice, has received 15 applications to accompany voyages across
the Arctic in 2011, against four trips in 2010.
"The potential savings are too large to be ignored," said
Felix Tschudi, whose shipping group chartered the MV Nordic
Barents in 2010 to carry 40,000 tonnes of iron ore for Northern
Iron Ltd (NFE.AX) from Norway to China.
Tschudi said that the voyage was about 6,500 nautical miles
(12,040 kilometres), about half the distance of the journey via
Suez and saved 17-1/2 days as well as fuel. Icebergs meant high
insurance costs but there are no pirates, unlike off Somalia.
He said Rosatomflot charged about $200,000 to accompany the
ship, more than fees on the Suez canal. It was the first
commercial vessel on the route that was not owned by Russia and
travelled to and from non-Russian ports.
Arctic sea ice shrank in summer 2010 to the third smallest
since satellite records began, after lows in 2007 and 2008. The
U.N. panel of climate scientists says that greenhouse gas
emissions are very likely the main cause.
Belkin said that other voyages in 2010 were to accompany an
out-of-service passenger ferry, a tanker and a Swedish
ice-breaker. In 2011, several oil or gas tankers were applying
for the route.
Indigenous peoples expressed worries about oil exploration
and mining in a remote region, where it could be far harder to
stem any oil leaks, for instance, than in the Gulf of Mexico
after BP Plc's (BP.L) catastrophic spill in 2010.
"The pace of development must meet our needs and not the
needs of those who come to invest and those who come to take,"
said Aqqaluk Lynge of Greenland, head of the Inuit Circumpolar
Conference which says it represents 150,000 Inuit.
He said investments such as oil and gas or aluminium could
threaten hunting and fishing livelihoods and leave no lasting
benefits for indigenous peoples.
But oil firms say they will take care of the environment.
"The world needs energy. We think that to supply that demand
we have to go into the Arctic regions," said Steiner Vaage, head
of ConocoPhillips (COP.N) Norway.
Norway, Finland, Russia and Sweden have all stepped up iron
ore mining around the Barents Sea, said Morten Smelror, head of
the Geological Survey of Norway.
"The main driving forces of these new investments are high
prices of materials," he said, projecting that strong growth in
emerging economies would keep up demand in coming years.
He said that promising, unexploited deposits around the
Arctic included diamonds in Canada and rare earths in Greenland.
For Reuters latest environment blogs, click on:
(Editing by Louise Ireland)