Resource War of The Future: The Scramble For The Arctic

By Spencer Kimball.

The great irony of the world’s current climate predicament is that instead of encouraging creative alternatives to fossil-fuel consumption, global warming may in fact lead to a renewed drive for untapped sources of petroleum.
Image via United States Department of Energy

As the planet continues to heat up, the Arctic will continue to melt, and a vast, pristine reservoir of oil will be unveiled to the energy-hungry great powers. The four Arctic players: Russia, Canada, the U.S., Denmark and Norway  will be on the front line of what could be one of human history’s most gratuitous displays of resource-inspired conflict.

To deny the current Arctic thaw is to deny a reality plain to the human eye. According to Scott Borgerson’s recent article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Arctic Meltdown,” the Arctic icecap “lost 14 percent of its perennial ice” during the period of 2004-2005 and is currently “only half the size it was fifty years ago.”

The Arctic retreat and its potential petroleum windfall is a reality the Russians clearly understood when they planted their flag in the Arctic seabed last year: The area claimed by the Kremlin alone could yield up to 586 billions barrels of oil, far outstripping Saudi Arabia’s reserves of 260 billion barrels.

The consequence of an ice-free Arctic would be a revolution in the world’s “relative oil power.” When we discuss oil today, the focus is on the Middle East and shipping chokepoints in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. As the burgeoning economies of India and China continue to put pressure on current reserves, this focus will shift to the extreme north as the Arctic becomes increasingly navigable. Such a radical change in oil’s geographic preponderance could make Russia the world’s new petroleum heavyweight — if their claims continue to go unchallenged.

Although conjecture about a new Cold War is mostly pundit hyperbole, tensions over the Arctic’s undeveloped energy resources could be the straw that breaks an already strained Russo-American relationship. It is no coincide that Moscow resumed long-range bomber patrols – a practice abandoned since the collapse of the Soviet Union – just two weeks after its flag-planting antics in the Arctic seabed. Moscow was clearly sending a message that it intends to back its territorial claims with all the tools at its disposal.

If there is one fact that the Arctic thaw proves, it is that global warming is not just an environmental risk, but also an immediate security problem: Largely ungoverned by multilateral norms, there will be a large margin for error in the dash to divvy up the Arctic pie.

In a frustrating twist of logic, the icecap melt will not raise environmental awareness, but instead jeopardize efforts to pursue energy independence through carbon-free alternatives. At time when the world should be focusing on what a post-petroleum society will look like, it will instead have its head buried in the Arctic seabed.