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Oil and the Arctic

25 May 2008

Oil and the Arctic

By Gwynne Dyer

What connects oil at $135 a barrel with last month’s discovery of huge cracks in the Ward Hunt ice shelf off Ellesmere Island at the top of Canada’s Arctic archipelago? And what might connect those two things with a new, even Colder War?

The cracks in the ice, further evidence that the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean is melting fast, were discovered by scientists tagging along with a Canadian army snowmobile expedition that was officially called a “sovereignty patrol.” The army was showing the flag because Canada, like the other Arctic countries, suspects that valuable resources will become accessible there once the ice melts. And the most valuable of those resources are oil and gas.

The strongest evidence for accelerated melting is the fact that more and more of the Arctic sea ice is thin “first-year” ice. Only about a metre (three feet) thick, it spreads across the ocean each winter, but tends to melt the following summer.

Melting has taken big bites out of the edge of the much thicker “permanent” ice in most recent summers, and unless some of the “first-year” ice that replaces it lasts through the following winter, then the melting really is speeding up. So everybody is watching to see what happens this summer, explained Dr Jim Maslanik of the University of Colorado — Boulder.

“If we see all the first-year ice melt out again, then probably we will have another record reduction in ice cover,” said Maslanik. “If we see this a couple of years running, that tells us…that we are about twenty or thirty years ahead of where we are supposed to be based on the climate models.”

If we are heading for an Arctic Ocean that is mostly ice-free in the summer, then drilling for gas and oil beneath that ocean can soon begin. Hardly a week goes by without somebody pointing to the US Geological Survey’s report that the Arctic basin contains a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas. But the event that did most to trigger this new concern about sovereignty was Artur Chilingarov’s publicity stunt last summer.

Chilingarov is a polar explorer of the old school (he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union in the old days for saving an ice-bound ship in Antarctica), but he is now deputy speaker of the Russian Duma (parliament) and Vladimir Putin’s personal “envoy” to the Arctic. Last summer, he took a three-man submarine down to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean precisely at the North Pole, and planted a Russian flag in the seabed.

“The Arctic is Russian. We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian landmass,” he said afterwards, and affected surprise at the fact that other countries with an Arctic coastline saw this as a challenge to their sovereignty. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, flew to the Arctic the following week, and subsequently announced that Canada would built six to eight new “ice-strengthened” warships for Arctic patrols.

The other three countries with Arctic coastlines, the United States (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland) and Norway, are equally suspicious of Russian intentions. The real issue is about who owns the rights to the seabed, and the Russian claim is pretty ambitious.

Moscow claims that the Lomonosov Ridge, the subsea mountain range that goes straight across the middle of the Arctic Ocean, is an extension of the Russian territorial shelf, and therefore belongs to Russia all the way to the North Pole. Alternatively, if the Law of the Sea tribunal does not ultimately accept that claim, Moscow may have an even broader claim in reserve.

In the early 20th century seven countries laid claim to parts of Antarctica on the basis of “sectors”: pie-shaped slices running along lines of longitude (which converge at the poles). The width of those slices depended on where the various claimants owned territories near Antarctica, mostly islands in the Southern Ocean. Those claims are dormant because of a subsequent treaty banning economic development in Antarctica, but the precedent has not been forgotten.

By that precedent, Russia could lay claim to about half the Arctic Ocean on the basis of lines of longitude running from the far eastern and western ends of the country up to the North Pole — and in 1924 the old Soviet Union did precisely that. Nobody else accepted that claim then, and they wouldn’t now if Russia raised it again. But Russia has the big Arctic ports and the nuclear-powered ice-breakers to make its claim stick, and nobody else does.

That is where the current panic comes from. It probably won’t end up in a new Cold War, but it has certainly got the hens in the chicken coop all stirred up.

As is often the case with hens, they are over-reacting. Russia is in a more assertive mood than it was a decade ago, but there are no signs that it intends to pursue its claims by force. Moreover, there is no serious basis for the claim that a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie under the Arctic Ocean.

It always seemed implausible, given that the Arctic Ocean only accounts for slightly less than 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, but in fact the US Geological Survey never said anything of the sort. Neither has any other authoritative source, yet this factoid has gained such currency that it even influences government policy. Isn’t it interesting how readily people will believe something when they really want to?


This article is 925 words. To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4, 5 and 9. (“The strongest…models”; and “The other..ambitious”)