Thursday, April 18, 2013

THE ARCTIC: The New North Pole--It's not just about Santa Claus Anymore

North Pole with border countries, yahoo image. Portions of 8 countries
surround the Arctic circle, which is super rich in oil and gas resources.  
The Arctic, I am learning,  is a vast untapped resource, larger than the African continent, eyed hungrily by many nations.  A quick online search of what for me is a rather esoteric subject confirms this.  It's huge. Almost unfathomable.  Santa's North Pole is one of the most unexplored, undeveloped, resources-rich regions on planet Earth. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic has 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.   It's all up for grabs.  (See Amy Crawford, Smithsonian magazine, April 2013).

Is the Arctic circle region--becoming more accessible as global warming melts the ice--an incredible opportunity for energy exploration and independence, or an environmental and geopolitical nightmare in the making?  I don't know.  But the home of Santa Claus and his toy factory has mind-boggling potential for becoming a battlefield of global proportions, not only over drilling for oil, but also over the Arctic’s true borders.  Who owns the land, the expanding ocean, the seafloor, the resources?

For doubters and naysayers about global warming, here is another fact: “We’ve never had a situation where an ocean has appeared overnight,” Crawford quotes professor  Rob Huebert, a political scientist at the University of Calgary who studies Arctic security issues.  "Arctic security issues"? Didn’t even know they existed.

Huebert continues:   “The ice kept everybody out, but now all of a sudden the ice is going to be gone.  So what happens?”

Will it be like the great 19th century exploration and exploitation battles between Russia and Britain over central Asia and India?  Will it be another version of a cold war, no pun intended, between Russia and the USA?

Russia is already claiming that much of the sea floor is an extension of Siberia’s continental shelf.  That would, the essay notes, “expand Russia’s borders to cover some five billion tons of oil and natural gas.”   

Then there’s China.  It isn’t on the border, not even geographically close, but it is the world’s largest energy consumer.  It’s not sitting idly by either, according to Crawford’s essay.  It sees the potential, and that’s why it’s investing billions in Canadian oil and gas projects.  Incredible news. Beijing has also expressed “a sudden desire” to join the once-obscure Arctic Council.  First time I’ve heard of it.   

There’s a fight brewing about the storied Northwest Passage as well, Crawford notes, a route along Arctic North America that became free of ice along the entire length for the first time in August 2007.   Good heavens.  Apparently this passage is much shorter than the usual sea route through the Panama Canal, and it could be a real boon to exporters like China.  Does the passageway belong to Canada, as it insists, or is it “an international waterway,” as the US and Europe contend? 

Will the Arctic's untapped natural resources become the world’s next huge battle in the ongoing war over oil and natural gas?

Not tomorrow, because engineers and scientists have yet to come up with the technology that can withstand the harshest polar environments. And the development expenses are enormous.  “Even as the ice melts, the Arctic will not give up its riches easily,” Crawford concludes.    

There seems to be little doubt, however, that the frigid and remote Arctic region will be hotly contested in the not-too-distant future. The fight's already begun.

It appears that the Obama administration is on it, through an Interior Department’s "high level working group" on Alaska oil and gas development and a U.S. Arctic Research Commission. There seems to be growing recognition for developing some kind of international plan for responsible development and, yes, protection.

What a daunting agenda. The future of the globe is at stake.  The Arctic is no longer just Santa's benign North Pole.

No wonder I'm having bad dreams.  And we haven't even talked about Antarctica, whose polar ice is melting at an alarming rate, causing oceans to rise. . 
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