Arctic Nightmares


While the Arctic is not recognized as exclusive territory of any one country, nearly every industrialized country in the northern hemisphere makes a claim for it. Canada, Danish Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the United States claim Arctic sea 200 miles from each country’s coast. Norway, Russia, Canada and Denmark have all made claims to the Arctic beyond the 200-mile limit. Russia even planted a titanium flag beneath the North Pole in 2007. The ploy compelled a host of other jockeying countries to meet in 2008 at a conference in which all agreed to block future claims and find a new framework to partition the Arctic.

The Complicated Geopolitics of the Arctic Sea. Source: International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham University. Click to enlarge.

Meanwhile, this year, Denmark claimed the continental shelf between Greenland and the North Pole.

Also this year, Mitt Romney unveiled his energy policy at a speech in Hobbs, New Mexico. In late August Romney gave a speech outlining a plan that appears largely written by Harold Hamm, the CEO of an oil and gas fracking corporation and the chair of Romney’s energy advisory committee. The plan would give states more control over the energy development on federal lands and encourage more offshore oil and gas drilling.

NASA Satellite data shows the new record low Arctic sea ice extent on Sept. 16, 2012. The yellow line is the average minimum extent over the past 30 years. Source: NASA

These events—Romney’s energy policy and the jockeying for the arctic—were unrelated until last week when the arctic melted.

Last week scientists studying Arctic sea ice and climate change announced that sea ice in the Arctic shrunk to its smallest extent ever recorded. Satellite imagery showed that the summer melt reduced frozen sea ice to an area less than 2.2 million square miles, an amount less than half the summer extent measured four decades ago. The changes have led some scientists to predict that the Arctic Ocean could be completely ice-free in summer months within two decades.

“This is an indication,” said one member of the study, “that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing.”

Much has been written (including by me) on the refusal of politicians and the general public to take the science and threat of climate change seriously. There is, however, one group who takes climate change seriously. Oil and gas executives. Melting Arctic sea ice means new opportunities for oil exploration and new geopolitical challenges for the countries hoping to cash in.

A comparison of recent Arctic sea ice measurements. Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

In an article titled “As the Arctic Melts Commercial Opportunities Grow,”, a website that covers the oil and gas industry, concluded that “The widely held notion that climate change will occur gradually over the 21st century, allowing ample time for society to adapt, is belied by the unprecedented pace of both climate change and policy developments in the Arctic today. Such rapid changes will challenge governments’ abilities to anticipate and diplomatically resolve international disputes within the region. Accelerating changes in the region are causing sea ice to melt at a rate exceeding scientists’ predictions. The absence of ice will open up strategic waterways, such as the Northwest Passage, for longer periods of time and allow more opportunity for activities like offshore oil exploration that require open water.”

So politicians and policy makers, it turns out, take climate change seriously after all. While Obama’s Energy Secretary Federico Peña criticized the Romney plan by saying “We will never reach energy independence by turning our backs on homegrown renewable energy and better auto mileage,” recent policy efforts by his boss make clear that renewable energy will take a back seat to Arctic oil exploration just like it would with a Romney administration.

Projected and untapped oil reserves in the Arctic. The black box locates the Alaskan north slope. Source: USGS

On March 31, 2010, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a new national energy strategy for Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas development. The plan sounded vaguely like Romney’s Hobbs speech. It included a commitment to “expand development and production throughout the Gulf of Mexico” combined with plans to “expand oil and gas exploration in frontier areas, such as the Arctic Ocean.”

Estimates of oil and gas reserves in the Arctic vary but all are in neighborhood of 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Shell has already spent billions of dollars on leases in the Chukchi Sea along the Alaskan north slope and ExxonMobil has agreements with Russia for future exploration.

As part of the new Obama energy strategy, the USGS was directed to study the costs and benefits of Arctic oil exploration in what the Interior Department calls “frontier areas.”  The use of the word “frontier” to describe the Arctic echoes the colonial rhetoric of U.S. exceptionalism—a rhetoric that always concludes with the invasion of indigenous lands in defense of some imagined national interest. Indeed, in its study of the potential drawbacks to expanded oil exploration, the USGS study noted, almost as an afterthought, that “Beyond petroleum potential, this region supports unique fish and wildlife resources and ecosystems, and indigenous people.” As ice melt continues, however, the rights of indigenous people and any concern for Arctic ecosystems seem likely to be trampled in the race to claim the Arctic’s vast oil resources.


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