Global Warming Opening New Areas to Exploration

Global warming is enabling oil and gas prospectors to look further north than they have been previously, with increasing numbers of ships reaching the North Pole without using icebreakers.

While sea ice used to block the passage for about 11 months of the year, global temperatures are rising making the ice-free season longer. The Northwest Passage can be a viable shipping route within decades or even a few years, according to the U.S. Navy. In addition, China has taken the unusual step of purchasing its own icebreaking ship (Greenwire, April 4).

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, scientists say. The temperature there could rise by 7 to 12.5 degrees by the end of the century, and the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer by 2060.

Since the U.S. Geological Survey announced that a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves are under the Arctic Ocean, companies are scrambling to stake claims. BP has an Alaskan offshore oil deposit called Northstar, and Statoil is developing the Snow White gas field in the frozen Barents Sea that is expected to generate $60 billion worth of LNG over the next 30 years. And Gazprom is expected to announce joint plans to drill up to 120 wells in the Shtokman field, 10 times the size of Snow White.

According to international law, a country can claim the seabed extending up to 350 miles off its coast. Since no country's shelf extends far enough to claim the North Pole, the International Seabed Authority administers a neutral area around it. Denmark is among the eight countries with a claim to the Arctic: It is trying to prove that its Greenland territory connects to a 1,100-mile underwater ridge that ends near the pole.

"It's an unfortunate fact of life that the climactically benign and politically stable areas are running out of oil and gas," said Bruce Evers, an analyst at London firm Investec. "So in politically stable areas like the Arctic there's going to be a substantial amount of interest" (David Adam, London Guardian, April 18).

But the head of the British Antarctic Survey, which coordinates U.K. activity at both poles, has said he is "very uncomfortable" with USGS, BP and Statoil's project to find resources in the Arctic under the auspices of a program intended to address global warming.

Rapley plans to question the USGS plan this week at an International Polar Year meeting in Cambridge, England. "There is an argument that it is much better to work with companies that are considering how to exploit these resources rather than taking a somewhat prissy position," he said. "But there are some things that are ethically in, and some that are ethically out."

Suzanne Weedman of the USGS conceded that the agency's Arctic Energy Assessment was part of the World Energy Project, which was funded in part by oil companies like BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, PetroCanada and Chevron. But, she said, they had no say on how the money was spent and were not involved in research.

"Knowing about the energy resources might be very interesting because there is the potential of development in the Arctic," she said. "That's not for us to decide, but it is the reality" (David Adam, London Guardian, April 18). -- DK

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