But opening it up to everyone and everything could lead to an environmental disaster.
In 1969 Humble Oil beefed up an oil tanker, the SS Manhattan, and pushed it through the Northwest Passage, which Canada claimed as an inland waterway but the US insisted was international and open to any vessel. The President of Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) declared that "an open Northwest Passage means… an international trade route that will have a profound influence on…the patterns of worldwide trade… A year-round sea-route in this area could do what the railroads did for the United States, and might do it quicker.”
And a good thing it was. A U.S. Coastguard icebreaker, assigned to accompany the Manhattan, became stuck at the first challenge of ice, and had to be freed by the Macdonald. Accompanied by another Canadian icebreaker, the U.S. vessel limped home through a less challenging section of the Passage. That left it to the Macdonald to free an ice-bound (“becalmed,” in nautical terms) Manhattan a total of 12 times on the 4,500-mile return voyage from New York to the Prudhoe Bay oil field on the North Slope of Alaska.
In 1985, the American icebreaker Polar Sea caused an international controversy when it went through the passage without asking. After this event, in 1988, Prime Minister Mulroney and President Reagan agreed to the Canada-U.S. Agreement on Arctic Cooperation, in which the United States "pledges that all navigation by U.S. icebreakers within waters claimed by Canada will be undertaken with the consent of the Government of Canada." The treaty recognized the "close and friendly relations between their two countries, the uniqueness of ice-covered maritime areas."
Now it is 2019 and areas are not so ice-covered, and relations aren't as close and friendly as they have been in the past. In a recent speech, the US Secretary of State called Canada's claim "illegitimate". Mike Pompeo said, "The U.S. has a long-contested feud with Canada over sovereign claims through the Northwest Passage."
The main problems arising from a massive increase in shipping through the Northwest Passage are environmental; Michael Byers wrote in 2006, during another challenge, about what might happen as the weather warms:
..any shipping involves the risk of accidents, particularly in remote and icy waters. An oil spill would cause catastrophic damage to fragile Arctic ecosystems; a cruise ship in distress would require an expensive and possibly dangerous rescue mission. Any new fishery will be highly susceptible to over-exploitation, particularly because of the difficult-to-police location, rapid declines in fish stocks elsewhere and the consequent, excess fishing capacity that now exists worldwide.
Pollution stays up there forever. That's why the 1988 agreement talked of environmental issues, allowing Americans to "increase their knowledge of the marine environment of the Arctic through research conducted during icebreaker voyages."
So what happens if American cruise ships, tankers and freighters start traveling this new trade route? A spokesperson for Canada's Foreign Affairs Ministry is quoted in the Star:
Canada remains committed to exercising the full extent of its rights and sovereignty over its territory and its Arctic waters, including the various waterways commonly referred to as the Northwest Passage. Those waterways are part of the internal waters of Canada.
Pompeo's speech is criticized as being provocative and inaccurate. One expert said the Canadian government should "be worried that the top diplomat from one of its key Arctic allies got his facts so wrong." Others wonder why the American government would be challenging its partner in NORAD when they are under such pressure from Russia and China. "This isn’t the time to be throwing snowballs."
It is the time to protect the North, and to keep unregulated shipping out of the Northwest Passage.