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The Great Arctic Oil Race: Northern Countries Exploit Ice-Free Arctic

Arctic Northwest Passage

The race to exploit an ice-free Arctic has just begun, with Norway and Russia springing to capitalize on new economic opportunities the untapped Northern region presents.

The Arctic has seen unprecedented sea ice melt over the past decade due to climate change, leading many Arctic-bordering countries to assert sovereignty over previously uncharted Northern territory. According to the US Geological Survey, the Arctic probably contains 90 billion barrels of oil, up to 50 trillion cubic metres of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. This accounts for 30% of the world’s technically recoverable gas and 13% of its oil.

The Norwegian oil company, Statoil, already extracts 48,000 barrels of gas per day from the Snøhvit field in the Arctic. But it has bold ideas for future Arctic development, with exploratory drilling planned for later this year in the newly-discovered Skrugard and Havis gas fields in the Barents Sea.

On January 17th, the Norwegian government awarded 26 production licenses for the development of offshore oil areas to companies such as Statoil, Exxon Mobil, Total, and ConocoPhillips.

However, an ice-free Arctic also presents new opportunities for shipping companies.

Russia already has plans to revive a Soviet-era shipping route across its Northern coast. The drop in Arctic ice allows easier navigation for tankers and cargo ships and provides a faster shipping route to China than the Suez Canal.

The warmer summer last year allowed the Northern Sea Route to be open for a record-setting 141 days – a month longer than usual.

But while the melting Arctic ice presents new opportunities for shipping and resource development, one massive oil spill could spell disaster for the remote, ice-choked region. Many environmentalists and researchers have stepped forward to oppose rapid exploitation of Arctic resources, including the Pew Enviornment Group, which has urged the US government to approach Arctic oil and gas activity with caution.

What are your thoughts on the race to develop Arctic resources?

Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: Satellite data reveals how the 2001 minimum sea ice extent opened up Northwest Passage shipping lanes (in red).

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