Andreas Späth

Hands off the Arctic

2011-06-01 07:25

Andreas Späth

A handful of countries are busy carving up the Arctic, one of the planet’s few remaining very large and relatively unspoilt wildernesses. This new rush for territory is made possible by climate change, which is causing a faster-than-predicted retreat of the Arctic sea ice and making the region progressively more accessible. Motivated by the natural resources predicted to be waiting for discovery, the consequences of the coming exploitation of the Arctic will lead not just to the degradation of a few local ecosystems, but is likely to have a profound impact on all of us around the globe.

What’s the rush?

If current trends continue the Arctic is expected to be ice-free all year round by the early 2030s, allowing access to rich new fishing grounds and opening two shipping lanes of great geopolitical and economic significance: the Northwest Passage along Canada’s northern coastline and the Northern Sea Route past Russia.

Mineral deposits in Greenland, including iron ore, zinc, nickel, diamonds and possibly uranium, rare earth elements and gold are also likely to become easier to get to, but by far-and-away the biggest driving force behind the scramble for the Arctic is the promise of vast amounts of oil and gas that have been out of reach until now. The US Geological Survey has previously estimated that the region may hold some 13% of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil reserves and 27% of its undiscovered natural gas - anywhere from 90 to 400 billion barrels of oil valued at as much as $7 trillion.

The players

The so-called Arctic Council, comprised of Canada, the USA, Russia, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and representatives of indigenous Arctic populations, is the self-appointed custodian of the region. Unfortunately the Council’s nation state members are more interested in establishing control over the Arctic’s valuable resources than they are in preserving its ecological integrity.

The North Pole is formally considered international territory administered by the International Seabed Authority and under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries only have rights to resources that lie within 200 nautical miles off their shores. If they can scientifically prove that the seabed is a physical extension of their part of the continental shelf, however, they can claim territory beyond the 200 mile limit. Several Arctic Council members are going to considerable lengths to do just that.

After the Russians used submarines to symbolically plant their national flag on the seafloor at the North Pole in 2007, explorer Artur Nikolayevich Chilingarov declared: “The Arctic is Russian. We must prove that the North Pole is an extension of the Russian landmass”. The Danes, through their former colony Greenland, believe they have a legitimate competing stake in the Pole while several of the other Arctic Council countries are expending considerable efforts in conducting scientific research, seafloor mapping and military exercises to strengthen their territorial claims.

Shell has submitted plans to the US government for oil and gas exploration off the north and north-west of Alaska and other oil majors including Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, BP, Norway’s Statoil and Russia’s Rosneft are known to be keen to get in on the Arctic oil and gas boom. Cairn Energy, a Scottish company already engaged in drilling off Greenland announced last year that they had struck gas.

The threat

The fragile Arctic environment, which is a last refuge for a number of threatened marine mammals and seabirds, as well as the location of important fish spawning grounds, is at considerable danger, particularly from offshore oil drilling. Remote locations, icebergs, extreme weather conditions and heavy seas not only increase the risk of oil spills, but would make clean-up operations exceedingly difficult and slow.

The tragic irony of what’s happening should not be lost on those of us who live thousands of kilometres from the North Pole. The exploitation and use of Arctic oil and gas, which itself is only possible because climate change is melting the sea ice, will contribute to more global warming, rising sea levels, changing ocean currents, altered atmospheric circulation and unpredictable new climate patterns for all of us.

The Arctic, like the Antarctic, is a common good that needs to be protected, not exploited. Surely its future shouldn’t be left in the hands of a small group of governments more interested in economic and political gains than in the long-term health of the planet.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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