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Shipper keen on Northwest Passage

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The company that made the first commercial transit of the Northwest Passage plans to increase its shipments through the legendary waterway next year, suggesting such traffic is coming sooner than anyone anticipated.

"We hope and expect to do it," said Christian Bonfils of Nordic Bulk Carriers, the Danish shipper that owns the Nordic Orion.

The vessel made history last September when it hauled 15,000 tonnes of coal to Finland from Vancouver through water that was once impenetrable ice. It took four days less than it would have taken to traverse the Panama Canal, and its greater depths allowed the Orion to carry about 25 per cent more coal. Sailing through the passage saved the company about $200,000 and resulted in a profitable voyage.

"We had a very smooth voyage and not any major delays," said Bonfils. "We're very pleased about it."

The company is talking with the Canadian government about ramping up those shipments, Bonfils said. The number of planned transits is under discussion.

"It's a bit too early to say," said Bonfils from Copenhagen, Denmark. "The window for doing this changes every year. We need to slowly explore what is actually possible to do here."

A federal spokesman confirmed the company has broached its plans for multiple transits with the government.

"Nordic Bulk Carriers representatives have met with Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada representatives to discuss anticipated transits in 2014 through the Northwest Passage," said Kevin Hill of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is responsible for the Coast Guard.

Those discussions have included possible icebreaker assistance, Hill said.

That means an era many experts relegated to the future is already here, said Rob Huebert, an Arctic policy expert at the University of Calgary.

"The game is afoot," he said.

Huebert suggested previous surveys reporting almost no interest in the Northwest Passage were the result of shippers keeping plans under wraps.

"When you look at the number of ice-strengthened vessels that came out of the woodwork for (Russia's) Northern Sea Route, it's obvious that some companies have been quickly building up capacity. It's obvious now the companies aren't being forthright in terms of what their capabilities are."

In Russia, 421 vessels applied for permission to use that country's northern passage last season.

Now that Nordic Bulk Carriers has shown it's possible, other shippers are likely to follow suit, said John Higginbotham, a professor at Carleton University and former assistant deputy minister of transport.

"I expect more companies to take advantage of it," he said. "I think there are some Canadian companies that got scooped. I believe they only woke up to this development."

Higginbotham said the ice in the passage varies from year to year. But the old, tough, multi-year ice that once blocked the route is largely gone. "It is thinner and more rotten and (has) less volume than ever before," he said.

However, one commercial transit does not a Suez Canal make. That waterway gets 18,000 ships a year. Since 1903, Coast Guard records show only four tankers have made full transits of the Northwest Passage, including one each in 2011 and 2012. No cargo ship has made the voyage and the Nordic Orion is the only bulk carrier to have done so.

The Northwest Passage lacks adequate nautical charts, ports, search-and-rescue stations and icebreakers for commercial ships. Unlike in Russia, the federal government has not made upgrading those facilities a priority.

But Bonfils said his company is convinced there's money to be made in sending goods through a waterway that once bedevilled generations of mariners.

Expect more shippers to follow, Higginbotham said: "Where there's cargo to make money, ships will go."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2014 B7

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