Global warming is rapidly changing the Arctic landscape. In the summer of 2008, for the first time in recorded history, the polar icecap retreated far enough to allow shipping north of Eurasia and North America; by 2013, these sea routes are expected to be completely ice free during the summer.
The region promises more than shortcuts for international shipping however. The Arctic is estimated to contain about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and so much as 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Together this represents 22 percent of all untapped but technically recoverable hydrocarbons. Over 80 percent of these resources lie offshore. No wonder then that nearby countries are only too eager to make the high jump into the cold.
There are some complications: energy prices need to be high enough to make production in such an extreme environment economically viable. To make matters worse, some Arctic coastal states have not settled on the regulatory standards for development yet which is especially hampering Norway.
It isn’t stopping the Russians from more or less trying to annex the Pole for themselves of course. Gazprom has partnered with the Norwegian company StatoilHydro in the Russian Arctic and hopes to bring the enormous Shtokman field in the Barents Sea on stream by 2013. The field holds enough gas to provide the whole of the United States with electricity for six years!
Russia made its designs on the Arctic abundantly clear in August 2007 when it planted its flag on the seafloor of the North Pole. In good Cold War fashion, it subsequently began patrolling the Arctic once again with bombers and warships while Moscow invested more than a billion dollars in the expansion of the port of Murmansk which is supposed to double its capacity by 2015.
Whence all the fuss? As former Director of the FSB and current secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev stated last year: “The Arctic must become Russia’s main strategic resource base.” This, perhaps, to compensate for waning influence in Central Asia.
Russia isn’t the only interested Arctic state. In 2008 Canada held its greatest military exercise ever conducted in the region and the country is spending $40 million on scientific research that is meant to bolster its Arctic claims. Together with Denmark, Norway and the United States, Canada in part contests the Russian pretenses but Russia doesn’t shred from threatening with war over ownership of the giant untapped oil and gasfields. Indeed, it has already shown itself quite willing to violate Canadian airspace just to make a point.
The United States remains strangely silent when it comes to the Pole. Earlier this year, in Foreign Policy, Scott G. Borgerson called upon Washington to take on a more active stance in the Arctic but only recently did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak on the issue.
With Canadian-Russian aminosity flaring up, the Pole “is an area that we have to pay real attention to,” said to Clinton, “but it’s not an area that I get called about by reporters or have to answer questions about at the White House yet.” Most opinion- and policymakers do not seem to be aware yet of the great possibilities, and the great dangers, that the melting of the Arctic will provide. It’s about time the United States get involved nevertheless, if only to prevent the Arctic from indeed becoming a future battleground.