Port of Churchill, Manitoba. This photo dates back to at least 2009. Handout

 

Being a potash guy, one of the things I worry about is selling our product. I know Pipeline Online is largely about oil but let me pull on your coat anyways because what I am going to say about potash also applies to oil, LNG, even wheat and canola.

Potash is a bulk tonnage commodity meaning it requires transportation. And for global markets, you can’t beat a boat. BIG boats.

To my recollection, Saskatchewan’s navy has never been a significant factor, except maybe during the Riel resistance. We are a landlocked province, so shipping our resources to tidewater has always been an issue.

Location of ports from central Saskatchewan is a key factor. Saskatoon to Vancouver by rail is 1,683 kilometres and to Prince Rupert by rail is 2,071 kilometres. But Saskatoon to the Port of Churchill Manitoba is about 1,300 km. And it’s all downhill.

Here is where it really becomes interesting. Assume I have a potash contract with a buyer in China. Vancouver to the port of Tianjin is some 9,900 km and Prince Rupert to Tianjin is about 7,900 km. But, Churchill to Tianjin is only about 6,000 km.

See what I’m saying?

If that’s the situation with potash, I am sure it is the same for oil, LNG, and wheat.

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Let’s do some blue-skying. For the moment let’s assume the prairie provinces say the heck with battling over mountains or trying to jam pipelines through hostile jurisdictions. We will seize the initiative and define our own resource-based economic future for a change. We’ll call it our “Critical Commodity Infrastructure Strategy.” Tied to talk will be action – lets upgrade Churchill so it is now a “Critical Commodity Infrastructure Port.” Hey, each critical commodity will need its own facility – one for potash, one for oil, another for LNG and if the old rail is rotten, run a twin line.

For Muriate of Potash or “MOP”, the basic unit of transportation is a “Unit Train” consisting of 205 specially designed cars carrying about 103 tonnes of potash (MOP) or 21,200 tonnes of potash (MOP).  For a 3 million tonnes per year (tpy) mine this is 142 unit trains or 29,110 rail cars. That is a lot of traffic and a lot of storage required, so whether the export site is in Vancouver, Prince Rupert, or Churchill, a new port facility dedicated exclusively to potash and associated products will be needed.

That is a huge kit of new infrastructure. Who will pay for it? Maybe our biggest customers. If Europe, America, and greater Asia ever need to make a geopolitical investment to obtain security of supply, this may be the one.

 

I am sure there will be many of you saying “Here we go, that old Port of Churchill thing again! Heard it nonstop since the ’70s.” However, the world has drastically and dramatically changed. Here are three new reasons for “Why Churchill” and “Why Now?”

Reason One is basic – global warming is shrinking ice caps, so the Northwest Passage will soon become open year-round.

Reason Two – Churchill is closest to the West’s resource production centers, so it makes sense to us.

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Reason Three – our “northern neighbors” China and Russia are thinking the same thing. Not only thinking, but also doing.

China has been sending its icebreakers into and through Canada’s Northwest Passage since 2017, when the Chinese icebreaker ‘Xue Long’ undertook China’s first circumnavigation of the Arctic, a voyage intended to “test new shipping routes.” Rest assured, they have made more journeys since then.

Chinese icebreaker. Why does China have icebreakers? They’re nowhere near the Arctic, or Antarctic.

The ship, operated by China’s Arctic and Antarctic Administration, circumnavigated the Arctic from Asia then across Russia’s Northern Sea Route into Scandinavian waters before heading to Canada. It is believed the purpose of the trip was to test the feasibility of moving cargo on container ships across the melting Arctic seas from China to North America and Europe.

The ship took the same route as British Arctic explorer John Franklin took in 1846 to discover a sea route to the Orient. The Chinese did better than Franklin as he lost his two ships and 129 men to boot. As I said above, the Chinese had global warming on their side, as it is now possible for any one to make this journey.

Here is why this should matter to us: the northern sea route from Asia to Europe via northern Russia is more than 40 per cent shorter than taking the traditional journey across the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal. And there are no canal tolls.

Our northern neighbors China and Russia understand this but back here, we don’t seem to give a s&%@@t. Too bad for us!

 

Steve Halabura is a professional geologist whose work over the years includes potash, oil, natural gas and helium. He can be found on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/steve-halabura-a715461b/ and reached at steveh@conceptforge.ca.

 

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