Taming the Arctic Oil Rush

VIENNA – The rapid shrinkage of Arctic ice cover is one of the most dramatic changes in nature currently occurring anywhere on the planet, with profound environmental and economic implications. On one hand, we stand to lose one of the Earth’s largest and most significant ecosystems. On the other hand, the once fabled northeast and northwest passages will reduce shipping times and costs by as much as half, bringing China and Japan much closer to Europe and North America’s east coast.

More immediately, the Arctic’s vast reserves of fossil fuels and minerals will become far more accessible than they are today. On land, oil fields in Alaska and gas fields in northern Russia have been producing hydrocarbons on a large scale for many years, but the estimated reserves under the Arctic Ocean are much larger. At today’s prices, these reserves could be worth more than $7 trillion, according to international energy companies; factoring in the accompanying natural gas, $10 trillion would probably be a conservative figure.

Because much of the Arctic Ocean is shallow and located on continental shelves, the bordering countries are scrambling to stake claims to exclusive economic zones under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The political heat is also being turned up in the Arctic Council, a body set up to facilitate cooperation between states with Arctic territories. Besides the eight members – Canada, the five Nordic countries, Russia, and the United States – the Council has six permanent observers, including major countries like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Now China, India, and Japan are pressing to get in.

Not only states are playing for position in the Arctic. The large oil and gas companies are very active, too. In the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the subsequent US drilling embargo, the approval of Shell’s drilling operations off the Alaskan coast received considerable media attention. However, this year’s planned drilling of three wells in the Chukchi Sea and two in the Beaufort Sea was first reduced to one well and then postponed until next year after a containment dome – an emergency device for stopping a blowout – was damaged.