Evidence of meeting #35 for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was airships.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

8:50 a.m.


The Chair Merv Tweed

Good morning, and welcome, everyone, to the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities meeting number 35. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we are studying innovative transportation technologies.

Joining us today are witnesses from ISO Polar, Mr. Barry Prentice, the president; from Moose Cree First Nation, Guy Ginter, acting director, impact and benefit agreement; and from Livingstone Range Consulting Services, Stuart Russell.

For the committee's information, Mr. Ginter is going to present first. He's going to talk about some of the challenges, and then I suspect Dr. Prentice is going to offer some of the solutions.

I'll open the floor to Mr. Ginter for ten minutes, and hopefully we'll squeeze you in. I'll give you a one-minute notice so that you're aware of the timeframe, and then we'll move to questions from committee.

Please proceed.

8:50 a.m.

Guy S. Ginter Acting Director, Impact and Benefit Agreement, Moose Cree First Nation

I would like to begin by saying thank you very much for the opportunity to present to you today.

I will get directly into it. My objective is to provide you with context as to what is going on in northern Ontario.

8:50 a.m.


The Chair Merv Tweed

Mr. Ginter, I may have to ask you to sit, just simply so your microphone can pick you up.

8:50 a.m.

Acting Director, Impact and Benefit Agreement, Moose Cree First Nation

Guy S. Ginter

As you can see by the slide that's in front of you, that's the James Bay coast. The area I'm from is the Moosonee and Moose Factory area, which is in the bottom left. As you can see by the map, that's the area I'm most concerned about, although the issues we're to speak to today are very much common to most, if not all, of northern Canada.

First, the history of the James Bay ice road. In the 1940s an ice road was established to support the mid-Canada radar sites. Subsequently it served the local communities of Moose Factory, Moosonee, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, and Attawapiskat from the 1950s to the 1990s. The original ice road was abandoned in favour of a parallel ice road situated closer to the James Bay shoreline. With the discovery of diamonds on the Attawapiskat River watershed, the ice road status expanded from the local to serve the industrial environment, specifically the Victor Mine, operated by De Beers Canada.

There are transportation gaps. Access to the region starts by driving to Cochrane, then by rail to Moosonee, then back on a truck by ice road from Mosoonee to Attawapiskat. The De Beers Victor Mine is connected to Attawapiskat by an ice road along the south side of the Attawapiskat River. During the non-ice-road period, the remote communities and the mine are accessible only by light aircraft. I should qualify that. Depending upon the circumstances of the season and the situation, there are also barges. There are between 15 and 20 of those on an annual basis, but they're very much subject to weather.

The maps that you see in front of you are the two roads. The left picture shows the south road from Attawapiskat to the De Beers Victor Mine. As you can see, that's 103 kilometres, and the James Bay road from Moosonee to Attawapiskat is approximately 301 kilometres.

The ice road season construction begins in December, weather permitting. Of course we haven't had that luxury in the last several years. The commercial opening is usually around the first week of February. Traditionally, the commercial access is about 30 days and the community access is about 60 days. Unfortunately, this year the commercial side of things was about 25 days and the community access I don't think was more than 35 days. With all that's going on, it was a substantially reduced season this year.

As you can see by the picture here, the road is built to an ice thickness of 43 inches; however, depending on the cargo needs, it can be built up to 60 inches in thickness. The reason for that is the 43 inches gives us the capacity to move approximately 100,000 pounds of material in a given truck. As you can see here, a 43-inch road will support 106,000 pounds.

Now, if you notice this particular picture, the trees are still fairly tall here. However, I would suggest to you that even though they seem very tall, this is the southern portion of the road. These trees can be upwards of 300 years of age. Even though they don't appear to be that tall, relatively speaking they are tall.

This is the Long Creek crossing. Commercial activity to the mine is between 400 and 450 loads. De Beers takes delivery of between seven million and ten million litres of fuel annually.

One of the challenges we're faced with, of course, is spring thaw. With spring thaw, the challenge of the road is that it results in significant flooding. Further to that, of course, the cost of the ice road is around $5 million. That's just the cost of the ice road itself. The entire program for De Beers is approximately $12 million annually. The federal contribution towards this is just under $1 million. As you can tell, it is very expensive. Those are annual costs I was referring to. You can see by this picture that this is typical of the ice jams that occur.

Depending upon the coldness of the season, there are a number of dangers to the environment. One is that the fish are impacted and the harvesting is impacted because the complete dam doesn't allow for the fish to actually go underneath the ice. We have a lot of environmental issues to deal with, which in turn result in impact to the harvesters.

This is an annual event. The White Swan Creek area is probably the worst. We annually do an environmental impact study. Our current one should be out very shortly. As you can see by this aerial view, it has a significant impact on the whole area. Not only is the road there—it's hard to tell by this picture—but there is also the power line that goes through that feeds the northern communities.

This is the North Bluff Creek Crossin. As you can see, it looks like you have a bend in the river there. That's not a bend in the river. That's actually the river and the road, and you can see the water on the road, which is the line that goes across vertically. The ice roads have a significant negative impact on harvesters and wildlife as a result of what goes on there.

This is the south ice road by Attawapiskat. The shorter lifespans of ice roads because of the climate change is making life more difficult for the people in the north. This particular picture is closer to Attawapiskat and is the actual start of the south road going to Victor Mine. You can see the trees are significantly shorter. And of course it's all muskeg, and it's very difficult to work and build in this particular area.

I'll turn to economic disparity. For approximately 305 days a year the communities are fly-in only. Fresh food must come in on a plane, which adds significantly to the cost. The cost to live in the communities due to transportation can be between 100% and 300% higher. The costs for a return airfare, as an example, from Moosonee to Timmins is approximately $900. If you're a resident of Moosonee and Moose Factory, you also have access to the train, which is a little bit less expensive, but as you know by what's going on, we don't know the future of the rail going to Moosonee. A return ticket to Attawapiskat is about $1,380. Of course that's a significant and very difficult cost to those up north. Typically they do not have the resources to do this very often.

The slide here shows the prices in one particular example. This is actually an example from Manitoba, but it does illustrate the situation there. You can see that the basket at St. Theresa Point is about $65.54 for those various items, whereas in Winnipeg it's $27.49. I would suggest to you that in Ontario the price would be closer to $80 in Attawapiskat.

The challenges that are faced include bad diets, bad housing, and bad outcomes. You can see by these pictures that diet is an issue, access to resources is always going to be a challenge, and whenever there's need for specialty things, of course, you must come out of the community. There is significant cost to moving people from the communities to larger centres to get the services necessary.

The crisis is ongoing. Like too many remote communities, Attawapiskat has serious schooling and housing issues. Even if money were readily available, the logistics of a response are limited by the window of opportunity to bring in bulk supplies for construction. Add the exceedingly high cost to bring in bulk materials, and a difficult problem has only expensive solutions.

Our motivation for speaking with you today is that we see airships as the game changer that could have many positive benefits for northern Canada, not only to the James Bay area, where I'm from.

9 a.m.


The Chair Merv Tweed

Thank you. You are well under ten minutes.

Mr. Prentice, the solution.

9 a.m.

Dr. Barry Prentice President, ISO Polar

Thank you very much to everyone for having us come.

I want to talk a bit about airships, give you some background on the technology and how it's evolving, and give you some comments on why we are where we are today.

To begin, I'm going to outline the need for a game changer, the technological opportunity, and the obstacles to commercialization. Finally, I'll give you some recommendations, which is what we've been asked to give to this committee.

This is a map I always like to show on the limit of the roads in Canada. Most Canadians haven't had much experience north of that red line, but 70% of our land mass lies above that red line, and there are no roads. So we have limited access to almost three-quarters of our country, and of course things aren't getting better with climate change, as you'll see in a moment.

There are challenges for the north in terms of transportation. The distances are vast. A three-hour trip north of Winnipeg still just gets you to what would be considered the southern Arctic by the people who live there. If you can get to Iqaluit, there is still a lot of Canada north of that.

The services are generally seasonal, especially marine and land services, like the ice roads. The freight rates are very high. There are thin markets. There isn't much traffic. There's very little coming back, so you have to pay for a round trip. Of course we live with harsh climate conditions, with permafrost to try to build on. So we have a real challenge for transportation in the north.

Solutions include ships, barges, trucks, airplanes, and helicopters. We use everything we can. One of the solutions we see for the future is to use airships. In the chart they're ranked in the order of cost as well, at least the top ones.

I always like to start with the airplanes, because this is the only way you can get to all parts of Canada 365 days a year. You can see various systems there. The airplane at the top on the left is landing on an ice runway. The Buffalo airplane you see was built before I was born, and it's still working. It's nice to see things older than me that are still working.

You can see the doors on the one on the right. I always like to put that slide in because it reminds me to mention that you cannot get things into an airplane that you can't get through the door. That was a special customized door put in for a Wasaya Airways airplane. What was the exotic cargo they were carrying? Plywood. One of the big problems is getting building materials to the north, and that's why that was changed.

Of course you've heard about ice roads. This is how we try to get to resource developments and serve our remote communities. I think there are 107 of them in total in this country. Not all of them are served by ice roads, but a good number are dependent on them. It's a very challenging terrain to get across, and the melting ice makes things more difficult. Some of you may have seen the Ice Road Truckers show. Those ice roads are like the 401. This photo is more typical of the kinds of ice roads we see in many parts of the country.

Marine transport is very good if you can use it on the coast, where you have barges. But there are also challenges that face people in the marine industry: how many trips they can do a year, how much they can carry, and what communities they can serve. By and large we have no harbours in most of these communities. Goods are offloaded onto barges, and then it's catch as catch can to get materials in.

Of interest to this committee is the question of the melting north and climate change. I know the Prime Minister has talked about this, and certainly our government has had more interest in what has been going on with the north as climate change is starting to open up potential Arctic shipping routes.

This picture on the right shows what people believe will be the case within as little as 20 years, when we might actually have cargo going right across the Arctic Ocean in the summertime. That will certainly raise challenges for shipping through this area.

What happens if we have an accident and we have to have an oil spill cleanup? How do we get materials there? We really don't have a good system to do that. Also, of course, how do we defend our sovereignty in the north when it's very hard to get things there? We think that the airships provide a solution to that problem, as well.

I'll give you a quick capsulization of over 300 years of history. Buoyant flight goes back a long time, way before fixed-wing aircraft. It has achieved many firsts, and some things that have yet to be equalled. Large Zeppelins were cruising across the Atlantic from Germany to the United States and from Germany to Brazil. They were neck-in-neck with airplanes in the 1930s in the contest to determine which was going to be the main mode of passenger transport.

What happened along the way, of course, was the Second World War. A huge amount of investment went into building airplanes. There were roughly half a million airplanes built in that five-year period. By the end of the war, there were high-altitude bombers and jet engines. That technology was quickly moved over to civilian airliners, such as the Boeing 707 and others. Of course the Cold War stimulated more public investment in airplanes, and now we are where we are today, with huge advanced technology in fixed-wing aircraft.

The airships were basically left behind. The investment wasn't there. They were slower. People didn't see them as being safe, although they did before the war. They were safer. And who was going to invest in them to use them for what? There was no cargo service until the 1980s. There was always belly space in passenger jets, but no dedicated cargo space.

Today things have changed. Fuel is no longer inexpensive. The pollution and the carbon dioxide emissions are things we care about now. And of course we want to get places where we don't have infrastructure, such as runways. So now the interest in this technology that has basically been ignored for 65 or 75 years has returned.

These are some of the technological advances you can see. These are two Zeppelins. The one in the photo on the bottom was built in the 1930s. The one on the top was actually built in 2000. They look the same in terms of their shape, but they're completely different. There are new materials for the envelope. There is a carbon fibre frame in the Zeppelin at the top. There are vectoring engines. The one at the bottom needed 30 people to hold ropes. The one on the top can be landed with one person on the ground.

Great advances in technology have come along. This is a list of all those things that have changed that now make the airship a much more viable technology than it was in the 1930s. Everything that has advanced the airline industry can be used, and is being used, for airships as well.

There are examples of some of those changes. We have tail thrusters and vectoring engines that allow the control to land without anybody on the ground.

These are airships that are being developed. The three in the photos on the left and the two on the right are actually U.S. military projects. The U.S. government has invested roughly $1 billion in airships in the last 18 months. The photo on the top right is a U.S. Air Force airship called the Blue Devil. The one on the left is the LEMV, an airship the U.S. Army has invested in. And the one on the bottom right is a cargo airship developed by the U.S. Defense Department. These are all test devices that have been put in place.

The one on the bottom left is an all-aluminum airship being developed by the private sector in the U.K.

There are lots of new ideas coming forward in this industry. Some are using a traditional soft body and some are going back to the rigid form.

I have a list of airship companies around the world. There's another list, twice as long, of people who would like to be doing something.

Each one on this list has actually built and flown something or is in the process of testing a product, some of which are called hybrid vehicles. These are vehicles that take advantage of aerodynamic lift and are, in that case, actually heavier than air when they're starting out.

What are the obstacles to commercialization? This is what we really want to bring to the committee. Why is it that in Canada we don't have an airship industry?

Part of the reason is that we've never had an airship industry. We have no tradition of airships in this country. The Europeans built airships during the First World War, and before the Second World War the Americans had a navy blimp program. They have about nine usable hangars. In Canada we have no hangars to accommodate airships, and of course the difference between an airplane hangar and an airship hangar is the height of the door. You have to have a very tall door to get the airship in and out, but without a hangar you cannot have airships. They operate very much like dry docks. You don't need to use them every night; in fact they're seldom in a hangar, maybe ten days a year. But if you don't have a place to put an airship to maintain it or to do a safety check, you can't operate an airship. So one of the problems is we don't have any hangars in this country.

We have a lack of business confidence. The users look at this technology and say, “You know, I'm not sure. When it's there and it's available, I'll use it.” We hear that all the time from mining companies and others, but they're not certain that the technology will really work. Then when you talk to the developers of the airships, they say, “We know there are no technical challenges. This has been around for a long time, and we can do it. But is there a market?” So you have two sides of the supply and demand, which aren't necessarily meeting because of uncertainty. Of course everybody is waiting for somebody else to take a chance first, and if it's successful they'll follow. And of course if everybody does that, we never go anywhere.

There is a policy vacuum. I wish that the people in the policy branch in Transport Canada were more engaged in this idea, and were more engaged in the problems of the north we're looking for solutions for, but we've not been able to get any response from that group in terms of taking this topic seriously and investigating it, and actually finding out what is the truth and where does it stand.

Finally, we have regulatory gaps, some significant ones in terms of airships, because we have no history of airships. Therefore the regulations in simple things like pilot training.... To become an airship pilot in Canada, you have to actually get a hot-air balloon pilot licence, which doesn't seem to have much relevance to airships.

These are our recommendations on the last slide.

What we'd like to see is a policy statement on airships for northern transportation that indicates and sends a signal to industry that this is a topic the government is willing to take seriously and not block, and will help accommodate, the regulatory framework to actually enable airships to come forward. Within that regulatory framework, certainly we need a more reasoned way of licensing pilots. The current situation is not just very unhelpful, I think it's dangerous, because somebody who can fly a hot-air balloon is not going to be able to fly an airship and shouldn't try. We have no way of actually building large airships in this country in terms of the certificate of airworthiness, and of course the first company that actually goes forward to build one would have to pay for all the regulations to be put in place, which seems not just unfair, but it's a terrible burden and a restriction on anybody trying. It was not a barrier for the fixed-wing aircraft industry or helicopters, so why do we have this so that we are actually forcing the first airship builder to pay for those regulations?

Finally, I have two last points. The first is on redirection of financial resources. You've heard this morning about the ice roads. In the province of Manitoba, where I'm coming from, the amount spent on ice roads every year is $10 million. That comes from the federal treasury, and at the present time it's getting worse. As the ice roads last less time and they fail, we are relying on small airplanes to bring in all the needed goods. That bill comes to the federal government as well. Ontario has 50% more ice roads than Manitoba, so I expect that the bill there is 50% higher, and it's not getting better; if anything, it's getting worse, and it's going to continue to get worse as long as the trend of climate change continues in its current direction.

We would like to suggest a redirection of those funds. Rather than spending on ice roads year after year and seeing the benefits melt away every spring, if we put some investment into hangars and perhaps into a pilot program to demonstrate the airships and build that business confidence, the private sector will carry this away.

With that, Mr. Chairman, I'll stop.

9:15 a.m.


The Chair Merv Tweed

Thank you very much.

Mr. Angus, you have seven minutes.

May 8th, 2012 / 9:15 a.m.


Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

Thank you.

This is a fascinating discussion. I think we'd all be in agreement that we need a game-changer for Canada's north. I'd like to start by looking at what we have in terms of resources on the ground.

Mr. Ginter, before we build airships to get to Attawapiskat, there has been a lot of talk about a permanent road, at least to Moosonee. We have Detour Lake Gold, which will be the largest gold mine in North America, crushing millions of tonnes of rock a year. We already have the road up to there.

Would it be wiser to put the money into a public-private partnership with the mines to get the road to Moosonee? Would that at least get the costs down? It's not going to get us to Attawapiskat, but having a permanent link road at least to James Bay, isn't that a first step?

9:15 a.m.

Acting Director, Impact and Benefit Agreement, Moose Cree First Nation

Guy S. Ginter

It's hard to respond to say what the first or the second step should be. Let me suggest to you that any solution needs to be a combination of things. Having a permanent road to Moosonee certainly will help and certainly benefit Moosonee, but it still does not assist those mining industries that are working much farther north of there, and that includes the Ring of Fire.

Just as a side note, the Ring of Fire area is 80 kilometres west of the Victor Mine, so it's pretty close to the immediate area.

To answer your question, I think we need the road and I think we need other solutions, because the road is always going to be subject to weather, and certainly airships will provide the complete benefit to the northern communities and business.

9:15 a.m.


Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that we have communities in permanent crisis. Kashechewan, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany are well known, and they are just in James Bay, not even going into northwestern Ontario. There's a lack of supplies, cost.

I love the idea of the airship, but we've been talking about putting in infrastructure, at least $2 million to $3 million per hangar, in each of these communities. The cost of building anything in Kashechewan is a million dollars plus. So to build a hangar to have those supplies in there, do we have private enterprise there now, or is this a pilot project strictly for government? Who's at the table with this project?

9:20 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

Permit me to answer, if I could. We don't build hangars everywhere. Hangars are like dry docks. You have a few of them located strategically around the country, and one hangar would serve 25 airships or more.

Going out to the community, most of the time the airships live in the sky. Some of them will need masts, which are relatively inexpensive. They need a cleared area, and in some of the designs they need no mast whatsoever, so the infrastructure cost is very low.

You would need a few hangars in a few places, that's true, but not in every community by any stretch of the imagination.

Let me follow up on the roads issue. While it is true that building roads with mining companies and others associated is a solution for some locations, it's not a solution for every community. In Manitoba alone we build 2,000 kilometres of ice roads every year, so to convert those to gravel roads at roughly a million dollars a kilometre would be $2 billion just for Manitoba, and more like $3 billion for Ontario. That wouldn't solve the problem farther north.

Beyond that, there is the issue of permafrost. Some of our existing infrastructure in the north is threatened right now. As the permafrost melts you get places where sinkholes are showing up on runways and on all-weather roads that exist in the north. The roads are not necessarily a solution.

9:20 a.m.


Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

I understand that. We can't say we'll just take money from roads and put it into airships, because those roads have to be there. The airships cannot replace—they could do phenomenally if we could get them up and running, but we'll still need to put that investment into roads. They're going to have to be there.

My concern with the ice roads is that we were down to 30 days commercial traffic this year. As seen in the last two to three years, it's been very difficult getting supplies in. I'm looking at how many supplies De Beers, for example, brings in. The freight containers that De Beers brings in that they have to leave until next season to bring out run for miles.

Have you had discussions with a company like De Beers or any of the other companies involved in the far northern infrastructure development that's happening to get them to the table on this? The price they're paying to get supplies in is exorbitant.

9:20 a.m.

Acting Director, Impact and Benefit Agreement, Moose Cree First Nation

Guy S. Ginter

Let me make one comment, and I think Stu could also speak to that.

We've had some initial discussions, but nothing is formalized. In my conversations with the chief financial officer for De Beers Canada, he indicated there is significant interest. The practical annual cost for them to bring in supplies was in excess of almost 500 truckloads of materials this year. The cost is significant. One truckload there and back costs approximately $10,000, and that's roughly a five-hour or six-hour drive.

9:20 a.m.


Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

You talked about food costs. I'm interested in the community aspect, because this is where we see so much of the crisis that we're facing. It's $16 for a three-pound bag of apples in Attawapiskat and $15 for two pounds of meat.

Is it feasible, though, that we're going to actually be able to convert this into a reasonable cost, versus scheduled flights for Air Québec or Wasaya? Can the airship do it?

I could see the airship taking huge amounts of supplies into the Victor diamond mine or to the Ring of Fire, but are you going to be doing the milk run into Kashechewan and Fort Hope? Have you costed what that would be in comparison to cargo flights?

9:20 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

Yes, I have. We've done work on that.