Tony Allen Mills – The Sunday Times August 5, 2007
The world’s great shipbuilders are poring over designs for ice-breaking supertankers. Canada is spending billions on gunboats. Last week Russia planted its flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole
The next cold war has already started and this one will be frozen. The battle for the mineral treasures of the Arctic will not only last for decades, it will be fought in temperatures below -40C, amid bone-chilling blizzards and unrelieved winter darkness.
The submarine stunt by Russian explorers intent on staking Moscow’s Arctic claim has provided a jolt of urgency to international efforts to protect and administer what one American admiral described as “the last great unexplored bastion on earth”.
The political powers of the northern hemisphere are suddenly facing tense negotiations over who gets what in an oil and gas-rich polar territory twice the size of France. Two miles under the Pole, Artur Chilingarov, a Russian explorer and politician, dropped a rustproof titanium flag from the hold of a mini-submarine to prove that while Moscow lost the space race, it is determined to win the ice race.
At stake in this outbreak of polar posturing is not just patriotic pride, but access to what geologists believe are a quarter of the globe’s oil and gas reserves - in short, the solution to the crippling energy shortages that will begin throttling western economies within the next two decades.
A potent combination of global warming - causing the Arctic ice-cap to melt - and developing extraction technologies is unlocking the door to hydrocarbon deposits that had long seemed inaccessible. Scientists believe climate change may open up a key Arctic shipping route - the fabled Northwest passage linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans - to routine maritime traffic by 2050.
“Experts say after 2016, oil production will drop tremendously,” said Anatoly Opekunov, deputy director of Russia’s Research Institute for Ocean Geology and Mineral Resources. “Every country, including Russia and the US, is thinking about this.”
In Washington last month, a group of US civilian and military agencies held a three-day meeting to discuss the economic, ecologi-cal and political consequences of increasing Arctic exploration.
“This is an ocean explorers have sought routes through for 500 years,” said Mead Treadwell, head of the US Arctic Research Commission. “If there is to be an international regime in the Arctic, it’s time to think about that.”
Oil companies are already pondering the technical challenges of industrialising one of the world’s great wildernesses. Recent geological studies indicate that up to 80% of the energy reserves may be natural gas.
“The cost of getting the gas out of the ground is high, but the cost of getting it to anywhere useful is even higher,” said Andrew Kendrick of BMT Fleet Technology, a firm that specialises in Arctic exploration.
A recent article in Professional Engineering magazine noted that Arctic pipelines were “out of the question” because they would be prohibitively expensive to lay. “The only viable way of transporting is going to be over the sea, using gigantic tankers full of liquefied natural gas,” the magazine said.
The prospect of giant ice-breaking tankers carrying highly explosive gas and roaming the iceberg-filled Arctic at speed is unlikely to reassure environmentalists opposed to any exploitation of pristine polar territory.
Yet President Vladimir Putin’s commitment to establishing Russia’s Arctic primacy - he personally telephoned Chilingarov and his crew to congratulate them last week - leaves other countries little option but to join the race or be left in the cold.
Russia already controls the world’s largest reserves of natural gas and is second only to Saudi Arabia in oil production. Both European and American officials are concerned that the West may be forced into politically damaging dependence on Russian energy production if Moscow’s claim to 463,000 square miles of Arctic is not challenged.
International lawyers agree that Russia’s claims have no more legal basis than Canada’s claim to the Northwest passage, which is regarded by most other countries as international waters.
Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, last month announced plans to spend £3.4 billion on at least six ice-breaking patrol ships to maintain Canada’s claim to the passage. Last week Peter MacKay, Harper’s foreign minister, denounced the Russian stunt. “This isn’t the 15th century,” he said. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘we’re claiming this territory’.”
Yet Eric Posner, professor of law at the University of Chicago, concluded that the small print of international maritime agreements was likely to prove irrelevant in the Arctic. “Power, not international law, will settle the issue,” he said. “Russia’s expression of power is credible; Canada’s is not.”
At stake are an estimated 500 billion barrels of oil, incalculable volumes of natural gas and potential deposits of diamonds, platinum, nickel, tin and gold.
US scientists have long been aware of the Arctic’s mineral potential, but fierce opposition in Washington to drilling in Alaskan wildlife refuges has hampered exploitation. The Americans have also been slow to grasp the implications of climate change and several officials complained last week that Putin had seized the strategic initiative.
A recent report by the US Centre for Naval Analyses described global warming as a “serious threat” to US security that should become a military priority.
Additional reporting: Felix von Geyer, Montreal, and Kevin O’Flynn, Moscowwww.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article2199335.ece
Last updated 07/08/2007