As the effects of climate change increasingly cause the sea ice in the Arctic to melt its vast oil and gas reserves are becoming accessible to companies willing to risk the region’s inhospitable conditions.
Oil, gas and mineral reserves at the edge of the Arctic circle have been exploited for some time – but next month oil giant Shell is planning to be the first to drill offshore wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska.
The plans have been hampered with delays, due to lingering sea ice, failure to gain the necessary regulatory approvals and problem’s with the ship Shell would rely on to stem any Gulf of Mexico-style oil leak.
Shell’s decision has caused uproar amongst campaign groups, notably Greenpeace, who have demanded that the region be turned into a protected area, like Antarctica.
Many also argue that with the effects of man-made climate change increasingly clear, the last thing the world needs is the exploitation of yet another vast oil field.
This week, NASA images showed an ‘extreme’ melt event of the Greenland ice sheet in mid-July which caused 97% of the sheet to start thawing, that’s approximately 50% more than is usual.
While this cannot be directly attributed to man-made climate change, it does demonstrate the fragility of the region.
I’ve been talking to polar expert Dr Cynan Ellis-Evans, from the British Antarctic Survey and Ben Alyiffe from Greenpeace UK to help me answer some of the biggest questions surrounding the Arctic.
Why is the Arctic so relevant now?
As the effects of climate change increasingly affect the environment around us and warm the atmosphere, the summer sea ice in the Arctic is retreating like never before.
Last month, the US government’s National Snow and Ice Data Centre reported that sea ice in the region has melted faster this year than ever recorded.
This is opening the Arctic up to new opportunities – not only of offshore oil drilling but for the fishing industry and for new trade routes as ships are more easily able to cross the region’s seas.
The other problem aced by countries around the world is rising prices of oil. Many people fear that consumption levels of oil are now too high to sustain the diminishing known reserves for much longer.
This is leading more companies to look for more unconventional fossil fuel sources. We have seen it in the US with shale gas and in Canada with tar sands oil. Countries and companies alike are now also looking towards riskier regions to gain access to oil and gas and are looking north.
Who owns the Arctic?
Ownership of the Arctic is a complicated and often contentious topic, with many different countries owning areas of land that stretch into the Arctic. The main players in the debate are Russia, Canada, the US, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – all members of the Arctic Council.
According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, each state’s claim on the sea extends 200 nautical miles – inside this area is a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
However, the countries were allowed to extend this to a maximum of 350 nautical miles by submitting geological evidence to the relevant UN commissions with 10 years of ratifying the law.
While these rules were put in place to fix clear geological limits – they have in effect created a tangle of overlapping claims. For example the US and Canada have an as yet unresolved dispute about where the border lies in the Beaufort Sea.
Russia also angered Arctic countries in 2007 when it planted a flag on the seabed under the North Pole, with mission leader Arthur Chillingharoy declaring “the Arctic is ours.”
What makes the Arctic so important?
Many of us see the Arctic as a barren and unwelcoming environment but the region is home to unique organisms, fish, as well as the iconic polar bear.
There are 17 different types of whale, dolphin and porpoise living in the Arctic. Some such as the narwhal and beluga whale remain there all year round.
The diverse ecosystems of the Arctic have also specifically adapted to live in these harsh conditions. The cold waters and existence of sea ice are vital to many species’ survival.
“If you look at fish species; there are some that need for their young stages to be near sea ice,” says Dr Ellis-Evans. “They feed off the fantastic amount of plankton and so forth which are associated with the underside of the sea ice.”
“There are iconic species as well, right at the top of the food chain, like the polar bear, which is used to having sea ice around. Sure it can swim, but it would much prefer to be operating on large amounts of sea ice…if you take [that] away they are having to go a lot further to find their prey.”
Climate change, melting sea ice and increased human activity in the Arctic threatens native species by introducing alien organisms to the region – whether they have moved north as waters warm, or have been transported via ships and ballast water.
Crucially the Arctic has an important role keeping the world’s climate stable. With vast amounts of methane stored in the Arctic ice, this could be released into the atmosphere as it melts, further accelerating global warming.
The snow and ice also provides a protective cooling layer to the Arctic. When this melts, the earth could absorb more sunlight and get hotter.
“Really the Arctic is an issue that concerns the whole planet and what happens in the High North effect everyone,” says Ayliffe. “Its role in stabilising the climate, its importance as a unique and pretty much untouched ecosystem.”
How much oil is there in the Arctic?
A study from the US Geological Society estimated that there are around 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil in the area north of the Arctic Circle.
That could be around 13% of undiscovered oil globally.
Now look at global consumption of oil. In 2011, oil company BP’s annual review of world energy put oil consumption at 88 million barrels per day. That works out at 32 billion barrels every year.
Looking at these figures, the oil reserves in the Arctic would be around three years worth of oil consumption.
And at the current price of around $90 for a barrel of oil, the Arctic reserves could be worth over $8 trillion.
If natural gas and natural gas liquids are included in estimates, then 22% of the world’s undiscovered natural resources could be under the Arctic – 30% of undiscovered natural gas and 20% natural gas liquids.
What makes drilling in the Arctic so risky?
Moving into the Arctic is largely moving into the unknown. The Arctic remains a hostile environment, and will continue to be so even as large parts of the ice melt and the oceans open up.
For at least three months of the year, the Arctic is in complete darkness, and temperatures can drop on average to -34°C (temperatures have fallen as low as -67.8°C at the village of Verkhoyansk, Siberia). The Arctic also experiences extreme weather conditions.
It is a difficult place for any company to work, and if something were to go wrong in the Arctic, these conditions could potentially delay help for days.
The low temperatures and icy conditions often mean that current equipment would also not be effective.
“It’s a tough tough place. Low temperatures have a profound effect on instrumentation,” says Dr Ellis-Evans.
“Equipment has to be adapted to work effectively up there. If you go to Scandinavia in winter – or northern Canada – they have to put heaters into the cars because at low temperatures the oil that keeps the car running freezes. If you go further north into the Arctic that problem becomes even more severe.”
If more ships pass through the Arctic – either oil rig ships or those from the expected increase in trade in the region – the risk of icebergs will be significant.
“People talk about how it is going to be an ice-free Arctic. It is not going to be an ice-free Arctic,” says Ellis-Evans. “People say that when the ice goes there won’t be a problem for us. It isn’t [open], there are lots of little bits of ice floating there, and little bits of ice can weigh tonnes and they are so low in the water you don’t see them.”
What are the plans for the Arctic?
Shell is currently leading the way with offshore oil drilling in the Arctic. This summer the company plans to drill five exploratory wells – two in the Beaufort Sea and three in the Chukchi Sea off North East Alaska.
Working on small, test holes, and relatively close to the Alaskan shore – far from what you might as the remote Arctic – this is the very beginning of a potentially long journey to large scale Arctic operations.
“This all about exploratory work,” said Dr Ellis-Evans. “It is basically to get an understanding of the geology and to see what the likelihood is of the potential for developing.
They [Shell] are talking about doing exploration for maybe the next 10 years. And all the work from that needs more work and more legislation before they are probably doing something around 2030.”
Other companies including ConocoPhillips and Statoil have also won rights to explore the US portion of the Arctic. ExxonMobil have reached an agreement with Russia to explore their seas.
Other companies with plans in the region include BP, Imperial Oil and Chevron. Shell however, will be the first to begin offshore drilling if their plans continue this year.
Meanwhile, in both Russia and Canada, drilling for natural resources already takes place onshore. But with 84% of the undiscovered resources in the region, focus from oil companies is firmly on the ocean floor.
What would be the impact of an oil spill in the Arctic?
The impacts of an oil spill in the Arctic could be colossal, although they are still fortunately unknown.
We do know that oil spilt in cold water takes far longer to disperse than when it falls into warm water.
In good conditions, it could take as long as two years to clean up the oil – with no guarantee the methods used in other regions of the world would work.
In the bad conditions of the Arctic winter nothing could be done until the ice melted and the region opened up again. The remoteness of the region could also potentially hold up a quick response to a spill.
Following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill – which happened just 52 miles from shore – BP was able to mobilise 6,500 vessels and 48,000 people in its emergency response. Even with this scale an operation it took over two weeks to contain the oil spill and many more months to clean up the area.
It took over three months before the company could say no oil was leaking from the well, over which time 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the ocean.
It would be unlikely the same response could be mobilised at the same speed in the rough conditions of the Arctic.
Oil spilt in the Arctic could also be absorbed by the porous base of the sea ice, moving with the floes and turning them black.
“The evidence is that it would spread a lot further than you would think,” says Dr Ellis-Evans. “Any oil that got into the sea ice would not just stay in that area but would move across. If that happens in winter, there is nothing that anyone could do to clean up that situation.
“The only time we would be able to do it is in summer when we would actually be able to go in and physically take the lumps of ice out.”
What does the Greenpeace Save the Arctic campaign hope to achieve?
In the latest campaign to raise awareness of the threat to the Arctic, Greenpeace want to push for the creation of a global sanctuary in the High Arctic – that’s the uninhabited area around the North Pole, 200 nautical miles from the coastlines of the surrounding states.
They also want to see a ban on offshore oil drilling and industrial fishing in the wider Arctic region.
“What we are trying to do is mobilise people around the world to join us and to create political movement in foray like the UN General Assembly, towards firstly an acknowledgement that the Arctic needs to be protected.” says Ayliffe.
“[It] is under incredible threat and undergoing incredible change and there are things that we need to do to limit the effects of climate change and to protect the area in the future.”
The Antarctic has been turned into a world park, so why is it so difficult to do in the Arctic?
The Antarctic is an uninhabited area of land and through the 1959 Antarctic Treaty it is owned by everyone. The Arctic has a number of specific players involved, who all believe they own part of the territory – those countries in the Arctic Council.
As well as a number of countries and government involved in decisions in the Arctic there are also 4 million people who live within the Arctic regions. These are often communities adapted to and dependant upon the unique environment in the Arctic.
“Just about every bit of the Arctic belongs to somebody,” said Dr Ellis-Evans. “Lots of different countries have claims and there are lots of different approaches to how they deal with it. They will look after their own interests and they will have their own legislation.”
The Antarctic is also more easily understood by the public. A huge landmass on the bottom of the world is apparently easier to visualise than the ice mass that floats in the Arctic.
“The Antarctic is a landmass, in many ways it is easier to focus on keeping that as a World Park as opposed to saying to be people there’s this fluctuating iceberg essentially is thinning and we need to protect it,” said Alyiffe.
Last but not least…climate change
For every barrel (158 litres) of oil burnt 397kg of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.
If we were to extract and burn the full 90 billion barrels which scientists believe are stored under the Arctic we would released 35 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
In his recent article for Rolling Stone Magazine, environmentalist Bill McKibben pointed out the disparity between what scientists say we can pump into the atmosphere and stay within the 2°c target – 565 gigatonnes of CO2 – and what we currently have in known reserves 2.795 gigatonnes.
The oil under the Arctic would add another 35 gigatonnes to that mix.
“We are witnessing a very perverse cycle unfolding in the Arctic where companies use the melting and disappearing of the ice as an opportunity to drill for more of the oil which caused the place to melt in the first place,” says Alyiffe.
“Carbon logic would dictate we can not burn the oil which exists under the Arctic.”
RELATED VIDEO: Greenpeace sends activist blogger Lam Fai Fred to explore the Arctic and find out about some of the region’s unique qualities.