News | Global warming opens up Arctic oil

Increased extraction of fossil fuels and minerals endangers the environment and international relations

After abandoning Arctic resource exploration in the eighties due to lack of profitability, the combination of rising oil and mineral prices and melting Arctic ice have reopened Canada’s North for extraction. The immense wealth of Arctic resources, believed to have enough undiscovered oil to fuel the world for three years, has attracted the interests of governments and private companies alike.

The five nations with Arctic borders – Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway, and Denmark, via its control of Greenland, are in the process of proving the extent of their sovereignty over the Arctic and its resources by researching the reach of their continental shelf. Since each country has different international water rules, overlapping territorial claims have complicated the hunt for Arctic resources.

Amid this resource exploration and diplomatic sparring, the rapidly-warming Arctic and the volatile chemicals that are now beginning to be extracted from it are threatening local wildlife and the well-being of indigenous communities that rely on them.

The tip of the iceberg
The competition for Northern Canada’s natural resources and minerals has been well underway for the past two years. In 2008, the Harper government launched the five-year Geo-mapping for Energy and Minerals (GEM) program to gain a clearer understanding of the resources available in Canada’s North. The federal government has already poured $34 million into the program, which will come to a cost of $100 million when finished.

Oil and natural gas have been known to exist in the Arctic for decades, but exploration had been put to a halt until recently. The economic viability of exploring oil reserves in the Arctic has been resurrected due to concerns over depletion in conventional oil-producing regions.

“[The Arctic] is an expensive place to work,” said James Ford, a professor in McGill’s geography department who researches climate change vulnerability in Canada’s North. “But it becomes more profitable. With the prices of oil and metal increasing, it becomes more economically viable to explore.”

According to Wayne Pollard, a professor in McGill’s geography department who runs McGill’s Arctic Research Station, the U.S. is also looking for solutions to this potential crisis.

“Americans are interested [in Canadian Arctic reserves]. Oil and gas reserves in northern Alaska are running out,” said Pollard. “They are looking to develop gas on the Canadian side [of the border]. Oil and gas are some of the key resources.”

While oil and natural gas may be the most abundant resources in the Arctic, mineral deposits uncovered by the GEM project have also attracted attention both domestically and internationally.

“There are gold prospects in the Northwest Territories, [which are especially profitable] with the world prices of gold so high,” said Pollard. “Some people want diamonds to be mined, but there’s a market control of the diamond industry,” he said.

Pollard cited De Beers, the international diamond mining company founded in 1888 by Cecil Rhodes and based in South Africa, as a company that could have significant interests in the volume of minerals excavated in Canada’s North.

“There’s a tremendous potential for more [mineral deposits], but De Beers doesn’t want to flood the market with diamonds,” said Pollard.

According to Tracy Sarazin, spokesperson for the government of Nunavut, the province is currently being explored for gold, silver, uranium, base metals, and diamonds, but also has an estimated 25 to 75 billion barrels of oil and 300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas undiscovered beneath the territory.

“Mineral exploration activity, which leads to new mines, is very strong in Nunavut; this is important not just for the North, but for all of Canada,” said Sarazin in an email.

A new Cold War?
On August 2, 2007, Russia ignited a global controversy by piloting two mini-subs, Mir-1 and Mir-2, to the seabed 40 km below the North Pole and planting a one-metre-high titanium Russian flag.

The mission was compared to planting a flag on the moon, and drew the ire of the four other nations with competing Arctic sovereignty claims.

This act was in direct violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) signed in 1982, which says that a country has economic rights over resources 200 nautical-miles from their coastline. However, the convention is open to appeal, and all five Arctic nations are attempting to extend their legal jurisdiction beyond the area spanning their continental shelf. Though the U.S. helped draft UNCLOS, it has not ratified the convention.

According to Ford, if nations are able to prove that their continental shelf extends beyond the 200 nautical mile zone, then they can exercise sovereignty over territory 350 nautical miles from their shoreline. This could have significant implications for determining rights over oil and natural gas reserves.

Russia’s claim to an extended territory was rejected by an international panel in 2003. The country is in the process of developing another claim, which will have to be proved to a panel by 2013. Canada is expected to submit a claim by 2015.

Pollard discussed the difficulties Canada faces in exerting its sovereignty in the Arctic as more nations claim their stake in the region for future resource exploration.

“There’s money going into national defence to create a fleet of six patrol ships,” said Pollard, who said the money is coming from the Arctic Research Infrastructure Fund.

While this increasing militarization of the Arctic seems alarming, the sovereignty issues involved may in actuality be fairly trivial.

“We only have a couple of very small boundary disputes along the eastern and western edges of the Arctic,” said Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia and one of Canada’s leading polar experts.

“[The disputes] concern 6,000 square miles of sea bed. [In a region where] distances are measured in thousands of miles, it’s not that big a dispute,” he said.

The issue of the Northwest Passage is particularly significant to Canada. As Arctic ice melts, the Passage has recently become more navigable, and with a higher volume of Arctic traffic, issues of policing the area are now more severe and complicated.

“The Northwest Passage is defined as an international waterway,” said Pollard. “It’s unresolved as to the degree Canada can police which ships go through and what they do, and there are no clear ideas how to resolve it.”

The third coastline
The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth. According to Ford, this phenomenon, called polar amplification, is a result of melting snow and ice, which reveals the dark surface beneath– further escalating absorption of the sun’s heat.

The changing climate affects more than the companies operating in the Arctic, however, and local wildlife and indigenous populations are increasingly at risk.

“Oil takes a longer time to break down in the North [because of the cold],” said Ford, who also said that there is still oil trapped in the ice around the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

These developments, while directly attributable to the use of the very fuels being extracted from the Arctic and shipped south, are not only harmful to the environment but are also detrimental to companies seeking to operate in the region.

Changing conditions will make it more difficult to extract minerals. The ice roads that companies rely on to bring in equipment and to ship resources out become unusable after melting in the summer.

Pollard cited a lack of awareness of environmental risks in earlier Arctic explorations and said that there remained a lack of preparedness for potential oil spills – though he noted the shift toward greater consideration of the environmental impact. He cited the recently approved Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, a proposed pipeline that would carry oil through the Northwest Territories from the Beaufort Sea, as an example of the new rigours of environmental assessment.

“Environmental regulation has finally caught up [with industrial practices],” said Pollard. “[The pipeline] has gone through a full environmental assessment, and every indigenous group has signed on [to support its construction].”

Indeed, Pollard also elaborated on the greater inclusions of native communities in current resource exploration.

“There’s a high proportion of native employment [in the local energy companies], and the companies give financial compensation to nearby communities,” he said.

According to Sarazin, exploration projects in Nunavut are held to high environmental standards and nearby communities benefit significantly from the ventures.

“The regulatory processes that operate in Nunavut are very community-focused and ensure that communities potentially impacted by activity have the opportunity for input into all decisions,” said Sarazin in an email.

Despite these improvements, researchers say that the short-term economic gains do not outweigh the long-term environmental consequences. The ultimate contradiction of companies extracting resources in Canada’s North is that their actions will jeopardize the ecological stability of the region they rely on.

“There’s a bit of a contradiction there,” said Pollard. “But [the environmental issue] is offset between world economics. Countries’ need for things drives this,” he said.


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