Global warming opens Arctic seabed to the search for oil and gas


As the ice retreats, nations try to advance their undersea borders and resource claims.

The Arctic is rich in natural resources, including hydrocarbons, and rapid thawing due to global warming could make exploiting those mineral resources feasible relatively soon. Large, discovered oil and natural gas reserves totaling 233 billion barrels of oil or its equivalent can be found in the Arctic Basin, according to a recent study by two British consulting firms, Wood McKenzie and Fugro Robertson, “with potential additional resources estimated at 166 billion barrels of oil equivalent.”

The study, “The Future of the Arctic,” found that natural gas accounted for 80% of all available reserves, and that 69% of it belonged to Russia. The study focused on areas within defined jurisdictions, primarily on the continental shelf, said David Parkinson, an upstream consultant at Wood Mackenzie. Most of what the study found is exploitable. “The technology is there” he said. There is also speculation that additional reserves may exist farther out at sea. “The Arctic is not an homogenous zone,” and research in the area is difficult because of the extreme conditions there, Parkinson said. Ice floes impede navigation while the extreme cold causes machinery to freeze and instruments to malfunction. Viewed in this light, the planting of a titanium Russian Federation flag on the floor of the Arctic Sea this summer was something of a technical feat - a fact that got lost in the political fallout as some of Russia’s Arctic neighbors reacted to what they saw as an attempted land grab.

Russia has denied that it was staking out rights, saying that it was simply trying to prove that its continental shelf “stretches up to the North Pole.” But if Russia’s continental shelf were to stretch to the North Pole, that would reinforce its claim of jurisdiction over the area. In 2001, Russia made a submission to the Continental Shelf Commission of the Law of the Sea Treaty, stating that the Lomonosov Ridge - an underwater oceanic ridge stretching 1,800 kilometers, or 1,100 miles, under the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole - was actually an extension of the Eurasian Continent. Under the treaty’s provisions a coastal state’s jurisdiction includes its continental shelf. Countries submit data to prove how far the shelf extends. The data are then approved, or not, by the commission. The commission, however, does not determine who has jurisdiction over the shelf. That is a political decision made through negotiations between countries with overlapping claims.

Last year, Norway made a submission that would extend its continental shelf by 250,000 square kilometers, or 96,500 square miles, including an area under the Norwegian Sea known as the Banana Hole. If the commission agrees that a continuous continental shelf extends in the area, three countries, Norway, Iceland and Denmark, would have overlapping claims to sort out. The three countries cooperated over Norway’s submission because it would be in their mutual interest to determine the extent of the shelf. “After that it would be up to us to sit down and set the boundaries,” said Rolf Einar Fife, the director general of the legal department at Norway’s Foreign Ministry. In this case the three countries have already agreed on how to set the boundaries. Negotiations, meanwhile, between Norway and Russia over rights in the Barents Sea, including an area called the Loop Hole, are ongoing.

The flag-planting episode, characterized as grandstanding by some and ill-considered by others, created the impression that a fight for the North Pole was in full swing. That is because some countries are running out of time to demonstrate the extent of their continental shelves, Fife said. Countries have a 10-year deadline, after ratifying the treaty, to make that demonstration. Russia and Norway joined the treaty 10 years ago, in 1997, while Canada and Denmark ratified in 2003 and 2004 respectively, giving them more time to document their claims. It is easier to clarify the outer limits of the continental shelf, and negotiate seabed boundaries on the basis of prospective resources, before knowledge of confirmed reserves gets in the way of compromise, Fife said, even if “such assessments may ultimately also prove to be inaccurate or misleading.” As an example, he cited the case of the North Sea, where boundaries were set without jurisdictional disputes at a time when potential oil and natural gas fields were vastly underestimated and were commercially and technically impossible to exploit under then-existing conditions.


Exploration of the deep Arctic is unprofitable under present conditions but global warming could change that. Not only is the planet warming, but it is warming faster in the Arctic region, which is a vast container of carbon and greenhouse gases. These are being released into the atmosphere as the ice and snow melt, speeding up the warming process. Permafrost in particular contains more organic carbon than is currently in the atmosphere and is especially rich in methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. Polar ice cover shrank to a record summertime low this year of 4.13 million square kilometers, compared with an average ice cover of 6.74 million square kilometers between 1979 and 2000, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, in Boulder, Colorado. The difference between the area that remained covered this summer and the previous record low in 2005 was equivalent to five times the area of the United Kingdom, the center said. Not only could shrinking ice cover cut the cost of energy exploration, but the receding ice pack could also reduce transport costs significantly by opening up currently frozen maritime routes. “Export makes up a significant percentage of the overall costs of developing Arctic resources, in many instances greater than 50%," Parkinson said. For shipping in general, cutting across polar waters through the Northern Passage could shave 5,000 miles off a voyage between northern Europe and East Asia.

But climate change is also having a negative impact on some existing energy sources. Hydrocarbon shipments from northern oil and natural gas fields often pass through on-shore infrastructures that depend for a solid foundation on the permafrost’s deep, permanently frozen layers. The permafrost active layer, however, the part that thaws in the summer and freezes in the winter, is expanding downward and, in some areas, no longer re-freezes in winter. Structures constructed to polar norms are unfit for the marsh lands that are swiftly replacing them. According to a study, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, released in 2005 by the intergovernmental Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee, global warming is already a threat to pipelines, pile foundations, bridges, dikes, erosion protection structures and to the stability of open pit mines in polar and sub-polar regions.

In Siberia, the study found, nearly 50% of all buildings were considered to be in poor condition, and one major oil-producing district, the Khanty-Mansi autonomous region of western Siberia, had recorded 1,720 pipeline accidents with spills in a single year, contaminating 640 square kilometers of land. In Alaska, the number of days during which temperatures were cold enough to allow the use of ice roads on the fragile tundra had fallen to 100 from 200 per year since 1970, the study said. Platforms in the Beaufort Sea would require more stringent norms to withstand the increased force of waves, it warned. Melting ice and snow are causing sea levels to rise, while less sea ice has resulted in increased wave action, said Joan Eamer, the manager of the polar program of the global resource information database established by the UN Environmental Program.

That, together with more frequent and more violent storms is accelerating coastal erosion, particularly in areas where tidal waves due to storm activity are now more common. “There will be a rise in the frequency and the strength of storms at sea,” she said. The rise in sea level is now occurring at a pace of 3.1 millimeters, or 0.1 inch, a year, compared with a 20th-century average of 1.7 millimeters a year. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that in the course of this century, sea level could rise by 80 centimeters, but recent data indicate that this could be a conservative estimate, Eamer warned. Melting ice and snow account for a third of the rise, with the rest resulting from increased surface run-off of rainwater caused by erosion, construction and other factors.

Climate change models have not taken into account the rapid rate of deterioration of the ice and snow. “We’ve realized that things don’t move in a linear fashion,” Eamer said. “The melting leads to chunks of ice falling off and these melt faster than if they’d not fallen, and the acceleration phenomenon is increased. There’s a quantum leap forward each time we reach a certain point.” While the breakup of the ice pack may open shipping lanes, it could increase the iceberg hazard for tankers and rigs in northern waters. There is evidence that icebergs are becoming more unpredictable, calving out of season and following erratic travel patterns that are harder to track, just as shipping numbers in polar waters are increasing. Tensions over the control of northern navigation routes have flared in the past and are likely to get worse as access to the Arctic becomes easier. (

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