This year's extent of Arctic sea ice could be the second smallest ever, making the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route ever more navigable. But in and around the Bering Strait, the amount of ice wouldn't matter if the plans to build an underwater tunnel between Russia and Alaska are realized.
Though the idea was initially floated by Tsar Nicholas II in 1905, it was scrapped by the Soviets and then again by the economic meltdown of the 1990s following the Soviet collapse. Vladimir Putin reignited Russian interest in the project and raised the issue with former president George W. Bush in 2008.
Now, the Daily Mail reports that the Duma has just approved the plans to build the 64-mile tunnel and rail link, which could cost anywhere from $60-100 billion to construct. Reports are conflicting, but the tunnel will include a high-speed rail for cargo trains and possibly a road, fiber optic cable connections, and energy links.
With the new 500-mile extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Tynda to Yakutsk scheduled to be completed in 2013, the tunnel could be more feasible this time around. It would link Yakutsk, in Siberia, with the west coast of Alaska. Russia is determined to add 2,360 miles to the TSR by 2030 as part of its strategic plan. This will help it export more of Siberia's resources to places like China and North America.
Exporting energy to North America
Exporting energy to Canada and Alaska via rail might seem silly, given that both Alaska and Canada export much of the oil they produce. However, Alaska actually imports 43 percent of the petroleum products it uses.
Canada is a net exporter of oil, but the eastern provinces import oil from countries like the U.K. and Norway, since that is cheaper than building a pipeline from the west, where most of the country's petroleum resources lie.
As such, while delivering energy from Siberia to Alaska might make some sense, shipping it all the way to eastern Canada does not seem economical when it is already not cost-effective to transport it from western Canada.
Regardless, some believe that the tunnel could eventually carry 3 percent of the world's freight and generate $11.5 billion in annual revenue. At this rate, the tunnel could pay for itself within ten years.
The Times Online reports that an upcoming conference in Moscow will propose an inter-governmental agreement with the U.S. to underwrite the construction cost of the tunnel in exchange for a stake in the business.
It is difficult to imagine the U.S. Congress approving a jointly-financed project with Russia, especially given the recent backlash over the failed B.P. – Rosneft partnership, which Congressman Ed Markey (D – Mass) lampooned as turning the gas giant into "Bolshoi Petroleum."
This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.