The world’s longest waiting game may be coming to an abrupt end. The Arctic’s substantial oil and gas reserves have long been uneconomical to reach. Yet man-made climate change could be ironically creating more accessible conditions to drill.
The Arctic is thought to be home to around 25% of the world’s oil and gas reserves. A study by Stanford University in 2015, gave estimates of 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, 17 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, making up, respectively, 16%, 30% and 26% of the world’s individual undiscovered hydrocarbon resources.
To put the figures into context, Europe consumes close to 20,000 barrels of crude oil daily. Using rough calculations, the 90 billion barrels could fuel Europe (considering it consumes at the same rate every year) for over 12 thousand years. It is consequently clear why so many large fossil fuel companies and nearby states have tried and failed, for so many years, to claim ownership of the Arctic Circle.
Still, the large quantities do not subside the need for a lot of external elements to align, before any fruitful drilling is recognized.
Climate Change Affecting Extractability
The severe obstacles that have hindered any potential drilling are slowly diminishing in force. Receding ice cover of the Arctic Ocean is making offshore drilling (where the majority of reserves are thought to lie) more accessible. Traditional naval routes are seeing enhanced mobility due to the summer months remaining ice-free for an extended amount of time.
The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 pooled together many different projections of a completely ice free summer, which is an unprecedented thought in recent geologic history. Their earliest prediction came in as soon as 2030, which may explain why some large fossil fuel companies, have ring fenced their Arctic drilling finances.
However, currently only half the Arctic basins – such as the Beaufort Sea and the West Barents Sea – have actually been explored. A 2008 United States Geological Survey estimated the whereabouts of half of the recoverable natural resources are predicted to lie in just three geologic provinces – the Amerasian Basin, Arctic Alaska and the East Greenland Rift Basins. Yet, there have been contrasting stories, based on the actual volume of resources that lie below the Arctic.
In September 2015, after many years of trailing different approaches, Shell abandoned its drilling project in Alaska, citing to “disappointing quantities of oil and gas in the area”. There is also the possibility that climate change is more problematic than favourable for the drilling community.
Difficulties Caused by Climate Change
Climate change is unpredictable and challenging to interrupt. This observation perplexes computer models, used by fossil fuel extractors. If models are not accurate, there is the risk of drilling platforms being design improperly and at risk of damage from a collision with an iceberg.
Furthermore, the melting of the top layer of permafrost creates a slippery mud that makes supporting heavy machinery an ambitious task. Even if these issues subside in importance, the threat of unstable weather patterns from a changing climate adds a new troublesome dimension.
Deliberation delays and new machinery due to harsh weather conditions means more costs, which could make extraction unprofitable and thus meaningless. Ultimately though, a political consensus is still needed, for any breaching of the Arctic’s ice – an assertion that could lead to a new ‘Cold war for the Arctic’.
Political Scope of the Arctic
Since Russia placed a national flag on the seabed right below the North Pole, there has always been tensions over state entitlement and legitimacy of the Article Circle.
The Arctic Five is an informal group consisting of Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States of America. The group claims legitimacy based on geographical location rather than historical presence. Yet there are other countries trying to make a swift claim to the lucrative circle.
In 2013, China was added to the Arctic Council, along with Japan, Singapore, India and Italy. Yet it is China who has made the most ambitious journey towards the front of the Que. The country has constantly called for equal status alongside the Arctic Five, due to it being a “near-Arctic state”. Yet, as the world listens to the clamour of China’s horn, schemes to buy parts of land in close proximity to the Arctic Circle have slowly been materialising.
Iceland twice rejected a Chinese plan to buy a 115-square-mile farm along its northern coast for a proposed golf course resort. It was reported by the Guardian Environment Network, that the capital feared the proposal was part of a thinly veiled plan to build an Arctic port.
Additionally, the introduction of President Trump is likely to change the political picture. Trump’s renowned view on climate change consequently led to an executive order to revoke the Obama administration’s ban on Arctic drilling. If the agenda doesn’t change course, it is likely to be an easy passage through the Trump administration, for fossil fuel companies, into the Arctic.
Across the Pacific, Putin’s likely to see climate change has beneficial towards Russias strategic positioning next to the Arctic. An open northern frontier will allow Russia to setup Arctic bases more comfortably and use them to stretch its legitimacy further to the North Pole.
Canada has also had strong alternations with the U.S over the ownership of the North-West Passage. The U.S believes the passage to be under the jurisdiction of international common waters. Yet it is the narrow proximity of the waters that leads Canada to lay down legitimately grounds, based on the water columns abutting Canada’s Arctic shoreline.
Settling such issues are formally dealt with by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is a coastal state that is free to set laws and regulate the use and extraction of resources from oceans across the world.
The legitimacy of Arctic Circle is a tricky situation for the UNCLOS, as it is so unique. As Ice-caps melt, and it becomes possible to reach the potential resources that lie below the Arctic, the body must decide who has the right to manifest themselves within the circle.
Never before as an area so large, so empty, yet so full, been demanded so heavily. Bans on Arctic drilling have been shown by the Trump administration to be a meaningless exercise, whilst military presence in the circle has not yet been prepared for. A caught off guard wasteland could become the pilot for an eventual new Cold war.