Shipping lines expanding Canadian Arctic operations

By: | Issue #661 | at 03:15 PM | Channel(s): Maritime News  Breakbulk News  

Canada’s Arctic may be sparse in population but big in the mining business and keeping the region supplied, a challenging task.

Every November, another shipping season in Canada’s formidable Arctic waters has come and gone. The specialized ice-class Canadian fleets had a busy year delivering bulk, breakbulk, general cargo and various Arctic sealift supplies between July and end October to sparsely-populated communities with almost non-existent marine infrastructure. It was also a record period for shipments of iron ore by foreign-flag carriers from the gigantic mining complex (see sidebar on page 14) on Baffin Island.

Among the Canadian carriers, Montreal-based Fednav Limited is not a sealift player strictly-speaking but occupies a category all by itself, having notably participated in every major shipping project involving northern mines. A pioneering presence in Canada’s Arctic for more than six decades, Fednav today owns and operates three vessels that constitute the world’s most powerful, non-nuclear icebreaking bulk carriers. They transport more than two million metric tons annually from northern mines. And since the late 1990s, Fednav has been exclusively offering virtually year-round services among Canadian carriers engaged in the Arctic trades.

The powerful MV Nunavik is the newest addition to Fednav's fleet serving remote mines in Canada's Arctic region. (Photo Courtesy of Fednav)
The powerful MV Nunavik is the newest addition to Fednav’s fleet serving remote mines in Canada’s Arctic region. (Photo Courtesy of Fednav)

“With the success of year-round shipping, resource developers are no longer reliant on summer-only shipping,” Tim Keane, Fednav’s manager of Arctic operations, told the AJOT. “Fednav’s fleet of icebreaking bulk carriers act as mine resupply vessels, adapted to the needs of the projects which they serve. “These unique vessels haul virtually all the consumables required to keep the lights on at three remote mines in northern Canada. With access to reliable year-round supply, mining companies can better manage inventories of mission critical supplies,” Keane said.

The MV Arctic pioneered winter arctic shipping, and since 1998, has serviced the Raglan mine 60 miles south of Deception Bay. In 2006, the MV UMIAK I was delivered and has been providing Vale’s Voisey Bay Mine with a complete transportation solution.

In 2014, the newest of the icebreaking fleet, the Polar Class MV Nunavik was delivered to serve the Canadian Royalties mine in northern Quebec. Impressively enough, this 25,000-DWT ship is capable of maintaining continuous progress of three knots through ice 1.5 metres (five feet) thick.

Each vessel is capable of carrying the fuel needed to power all the heavy equipment on site, as well as the electrical needs of mining projects located far beyond the reach of southern power grids.

The Fednav vessels deliver nickel and copper concentrates from the three mines to smelters in southern Canada and in Europe. “Mining companies thus benefit from the ability to steadily feed their supply chain throughout the year, rather than stockpiling massive inventories while awaiting open water,” Keane noted.

The Groupe Desgagnés has been doing Arctic sealift operations for more than four decades.
The Groupe Desgagnés has been doing Arctic sealift operations for more than four decades.

Two Leading Sealift Players

In Arctic sealift operations, the two main players are Desgagnés Transarctik, a subsidiary of Quebec-based Groupe Desgagnés, and Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping (NEAS), an Inuit-controlled company jointly owned by Makivik Corporation and Logistec’s Transport Nanuk.

Headed by Louis-Marie Beaulieu, the Groupe Desgagnés has in recent years carried out a C$300 million fleet expansion plan. There are 19 vessels trading in the Arctic, the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes as well as on the U.S. East Coast. It has been operating in the Eastern Canadian Arctic for over 40 years. Regular trips supply Inuit communities in Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Nunavut between July and October. Desgagnés Transarctik uses four or five specially adapted vessels for northern operations – equipped to withstand ice and with cranes to unload the tugs and barges required to discharge cargoes on shore.

For its part, following the addition of new ship last summer, the NEAS fleet of five multi-purpose vessels serves 14 communities in northern Quebec and 22 more in the vast territory of Nunavut. The multi-purpose, heavy-lift MV Nunalik has a capacity of 665 TEUs and possesses two combinable cranes of 180 tons.

The NEAS vessels transport a wide variety of cargo – from construction materials to vehicles, heavy equipment, to house wares and non-perishable food. Acting as the principal staging center is the Valport Maritime Services facility at the Port of Valleyfield, near Montreal on the St. Lawrence River.

Arctic supply represents a relatively small component of the overall shipping activity in an extensive geographical area of North America for Petro-Nav, a subsidiary of Groupe Desgagnés. But Christopher King, Director of Operations, emphatically declares: “The Arctic is a very important part of our brand – it defines who we are and what we do.”

Speaking to AJOT, King offered details of Petro-Nav’s operations in the Arctic and evoked the challenges of serving a formidable, remote region where global warming has taken hold and is accelerating - as exemplified by the receding ice cover.

Fuel deliveries

Petro-Nav delivers fuel supplies to all 14 communities in Nunavik, Quebec’s northernmost territory. In a partnership with customer Féderation cooperative du nouveau Québec, Petro-Nav picks up the fuel from the Valero refinery at Lévis on the St. Lawrence River. The carrier is also the sole fuel supplier to the large Baffinland mining complex, in partnership with Nunavut and Sealink Supply Inc. (NSSI).

Hoses transmitting fuel to an Arctic beach location can measure up to 7,500 ft long. (Photo courtesy of Petro-Nav)
Hoses transmitting fuel to an Arctic beach location can measure up to 7,500 ft long. (Photo courtesy of Petro-Nav)

Throughout this past summer and until late October, the Canadian-flag tanker operator sent two of its ships to Nunavik. And a large German mother ship was utilized to feed the two Petro-Nav delivery vessels. One vessel alone can carry out as many as 20 port calls and deploy 17 miles of hose during the annual four-month shipping window. King recalled how little infrastructure exists in the Arctic.

“For tankers, there is a pipe coming down to a beach somewhere, down to a pile of rocks with a flange and valve at the end. And we hook up to that with the hose.

“I first went to the Arctic as a student on a summer job in 1975, and frankly not much has changed for cargo deliveries. The ships are getting bigger and better equipped, but really not much has changed in onshore infrastructure. A dock in the Arctic? What’s that!”

“The communities,” King went on, “are too small. It will continue to be beach-landing operations. With a barge used for the (dry bulk) cargo guys and floating hose operations for us.”

In different locations, the length of the hose transmitting the fuel destined for onshore tanks can vary between 2,400 feet and 7,500 feet. The longest hoses come into play when there are extensive shallow waters close to shore.

“In the Arctic, water can vary between very shallow and very deep,” King noted. “It can be so deep that you cannot anchor. The tides are another factor that you have to contend with.”

Wind Velocity Challenges

A further issue, which he said, seems to be causing increasing difficulties and may be linked to climate change is that of wind velocity. This phenomenon became more pronounced this year and last year.

“We are getting breaks in temperature in the shoulder season but experiencing more wind in July and August.

“We are trying to determine whether this recent phenomenon is a lasting trend. The fact is that when you have a mile of floating hose out there, wind direction and wind velocity become very critical in trying to ensure safe and efficient operations and avoid a major environmental incident.”

Leo Ryan's avatar

American Journal of Transportation