- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2007

DENVER — Ten years ago, when Colorado businessman Pat Broe paid $7 for the frozen port of Churchill in Manitoba, one couldn’t help but wonder whether he had overspent.

Located on the Hudson Bay less than 600 miles from the Arctic Circle, the Churchill port was icebound most of the year and had no import traffic. Its export business — wheat and other bulk agricultural products — was losing money.

Then came fears of global warming, and Mr. Broe suddenly is hailed as a genius. The ice surrounding the port is melting, making centuries-old dreams of a viable Northwest Passage between North America and Russia not just foreseeable, but practically inevitable.

“The perception is that Churchill is iced in year-round and there’s nothing there but polar bears,” said Michael Ogborn, managing director of Denver-based Omnitrax, which specializes in identifying, buying and improving distressed properties.

“We think it offers the most economical and efficient routes for exporters and importers. Once we can show shippers how viable this is, I think they’ll be beating a path to our door,” said Mr. Ogborn, who serves as Mr. Broe’s spokesman.

One country that doesn’t need any convincing is Russia. Government officials are eager to cut travel times and costs substantially with an Arctic trade route linking Churchill, and hence Canada and the rest of North America, to Murmansk, Russia’s northernmost port.

Last month, Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin met with Canadian officials to urge them to move forward with plans to expand Churchill. Russia also has offered the use of seven modern icebreakers in the hope that combined with the local warming trend, the Manitoba-to-Murmansk corridor could stay open year-round.

“The Russians have stated emphatically that they’re ready today,” said Ron Lemieux, Manitoba’s minister of infrastructure and transport. “They’ve designed Murmansk as a main port, and the closest North American port is Churchill.”

The goal of the Churchill Gateway Development Corp., a public-private partnership aimed at developing the port, is to build a trade corridor that transports goods from Murmansk to Manitoba, and then by rail through the United States and Canadian Midwest and as far as way as Monterrey, Mexico.

Although it isn’t obvious without looking at a globe, the Hudson Bay is much closer to Russia and Scandinavia than the U.S. East Coast is.

A route such as Murmansk to Manitoba also would let Asian nations such as Russia, China and India bypass overcrowded West Coast ports for access to U.S., Canadian and Mexican markets.

“Long Beach and Vancouver are so backlogged that they can’t get their goods in there,” Mr. Lemieux said. “So there are all kinds of opportunities we want to take advantage of. Manitoba would like to be the gateway to North America and the world.”

The hubbub surrounding Churchill illustrates how industry is reacting to reports about climate change, which would have both winners and losers — some of them in the same town.

While warming is thawing Churchill’s port, it is endangering the region’s current main economic driver: the polar bear. Thousands of tourists each year visit the tiny town of about 1,100 people, which introduces itself on its welcome sign and official Web site as “the polar bear capital of the world.”

The shorter winters are cutting the bears’ ice time, causing them to lose weight and have fewer cubs. The bears also are spending more time in town to forage for food, prompting locals to set up “polar bear jails” to hold the wayward beasts until they can be transported back to the tundra.

The idea of losing the polar bears hurts, said Churchill Mayor Michael Spence, but a longer summer season could benefit the region’s other main tourist attraction: the beluga whale.

“With climate change, naturally there are some challenges. Eventually, it’s going to pose a problem to the polar bear population,” Mr. Spence said. “But there’s not a lot we can do about that. We’ve got to realize global warming is happening, and look at opportunities for how we can benefit from that.”

Gateway officials also are looking to Canada’s federal government to help with the expansion. The port would need a greater coast guard presence, and federal officials need to iron out rules governing rights of way and sovereignty.

Mr. Ogborn, who has visited Churchill 40 times, or “39 more times than the average Canadian,” said Omnitrax plans to keep the port open this year from the first week of July through the second week of November.

“With icebreakers, we could start in June and go through the end of November,” he said.

The port, which can accommodate 60,000-ton vessels, now exports 500,000 to 720,000 tons, but it is capable of handling 1 million tons. “That’s where we want to be on exports,” Mr. Ogborn said.

Not bad for a $7 port, although Mr. Ogborn says that figure is not entirely accurate.

“It was actually $10 Canadian.”

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