Gold rush to North Pole oil reserves puts tough global warming questions to nations

Publish date: August 10, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK - With competing national claims to resources and a feverish itch for exploration, history is repeating itself almost exactly a century later as a host of northerly countries race for the North Pole.

But unlike Robert Peary’s disputed 1909 expedition, the new pretenders to Northern dominance are seeking oil and trade routes, and some of the very countries that have championed the fight against global warming are now relying on its progression to carve trade routes and drill for crude reserves under the ever-thinning ice shelf.

The latter-day gold rush was started by Russia, which, with the help of a nuclear icebreaker and two bathyscapes, last week planted a flag 4,000 metres under the North Pole.

The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea gives nations bordering the Arctic 10 years after ratification to prove their claims under the largely uncharted polar ice pack. Denmark, Russia, Norway, and Canada – the main contenders for Arctic territory – have all ratified the convention. The United States has not.

Russia has said an underwater mountain-range, called the Lomonosov ridge – which extends into Canadian and Danish waters – is part of its northern Siberian coast. Moscow has already laid its claim before a UN Commission for verification.

Canada scoffed at Moscow’s underwater land-grab and sent its own Prime Minister, Stephen Harper on a three-day expedition to tread the Pole himself. Harper announced on Friday that Canada will be boosting its military presence along the Arctic by building a host of new military bases in the counrty’s far north.

And on Sunday, Denmark plans to launch an expedition of scientists to counter Russia and claim the oil rich territory Moscow eyed on its expedition.

The United States and Norway also have competing claims in the vast Arctic region, where a US study suggests as much as 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas could be hidden.

The very nature of this new wanderlust, however, seems to rely on the progression of global warming. The competing nations hope not only to tap virgin oil reserves – which will be difficult without a steady increase in Arctic ice-cap thaw, which is already underway – but to open the Norwest Passage to trading vessels, cutting some 6,500 kilometres off the sea voyage between Europe and Asia.

Tough questions to nations about global warming
In order to cut time off Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s 3-year voyage though the icebound Northwest Passage in 1909 – and to develop the appropriate technology for use in the harsh polar climate – participating countries are faced with a tough question: Is opening new oil and gas fields and trade routes worth letting global warming run its course unhindered by human efforts to stem climate change?

Russia seems to be answering in the affirmative. Despite the fact that Moscow ratified the Kyoto Protocol, it does not intend to take part in further greenhouse gas reductions after the Protocol runs out in 2014. Several Russian politicians have also said in recent months that climate change would make fertile the permafrost regions that cover much of Siberia throughout the year.

Another question is whether nations and can be pushed to find the clean and renewable energy sources many of them have pledged to implement if they do indeed tap into the vast underwater oil fields of the Arctic -which could flood petrol markets and make the search for clean energy less pressing.

Questions of sovereignty

For the time being these questions will be shelved as nations roll out their geological surveys of the disputed territories under the polar ice cap to vie for their sovereignty.

"The Russians, Canadians and Danes all have overlapping claims in the polar region. It is unclear how this can be resolved," said Oeystein Jensen, a maritime law expert with Oslo’s Fridtjof Nansen’s Institute.

"There is a lot of prestige and vast resources at stake."

Denmark, meanwhile, has said it is legally in the lead to counter Russian claims and stake its own.

"The preliminary investigations done so far are very promising," Helge Sander, Denmark’s minister of science, technology and innovation told Denmark’s TV2 on Thursday.

"There are things suggesting that Denmark could be given the North Pole."

The Danes plan to set off from Norway’s remote Arctic islands of Svalbard aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden, which will be assisted by a powerful Russian nuclear icebreaker to plow through ice as thick as 4 metres in the area north of Greenland.

"We will be collecting data for a possible (sovereignty) demand," said Christian Marcussen, of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. "It is not our duty to formulate a demand of ownership."

Canada’s Harding told reporters Friday that his government plans to push back claims to the disputed territories – and lay its own.

"Canada has taken its sovereignty too lightly for too long," Harper said.

"This government has put a big emphasis on reinforcing, on strengthening our sovereignty in the Arctic."

Exploration puts pressure on Arctic ecosystem
Even if the involved countries are some time from striking oil, the increased level of activity in the fragile Arctic ecosystem could suffer from increased traffic and maritime activity.

“The richness of the Artic lies primarily in its biological resources, not in its oil and gas supplies,” said Nina Lesikhina, coordinator of energy programmes with Bellona-Murmansk.

“The ecosystem of the sea of the Arctic Shelf is unique.”

Leskikhina said the northern ecosystem is extremely sensitive to the effects of pollution, and rehabilitating damaged areas is time consuming. At the moment, the Arctic is relatively clean, but there re nevertheless growing sign of pollution.

“The assumed development of (oil) reserved on the Arctic Shelf under conditions of insufficient scientific knowledge, experience and ecological safety could lead to catastrophic results for northern nature,” Leskhina said.

“All of this need to be considered before any activities are undertaken in the Arctic.”