A new book due out soon chronicles what could very well be the genesis of the next great natural resources grab. The Eskimo and the Oil Man lays out the story of the Shell’s long efforts to get permission from the United States government to drill test wells in the Arctic Ocean. And Shell is hardly alone in their exploration – Exxon Mobil has partnered with a Russian oil company to develop Arctic oil reserves in the Kara Sea – reserves estimated at over 85 BILLION barrels.
This isn’t my first go-around with the implications of the natural resources under the Arctic – several years ago I explored the issue as part of a law review note. At that time (2007), Russia was making an attempt to claim large amounts of the seabed – and thus the oil reserves beneath it – through legal channels. Namely they were claiming that the newly discovered Lomonosov Ridge is geographically part of continental shelf of Asia and so, under the Law of the Sea Treaty, should be considered Russian territorial waters. Russian geologist and geographers sent to survey the ridge went as far as to place a Russian flag on the seabed. At the time, I noted that there were a number of countries that would have viable claims to the seabed under the treaty, including Russia, Canada, Greenland (and so Denmark) and the United States and that it would likely ultimately fall to the international tribunal convened under the treaty to decide. Fast forwarding 5 years, it has come down to those countries attempting to make claims but the issue then (and now) is that the United States, though heavily involved in writing the treaty, has not yet ratified it and cannot avail itself of this forum. As the value of the undersea resources continues to increase, the US may have no choice but to ratify the treaty and allow the tribunal to split the resources among the claimants.
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Of course, regardless of who owns the seabed, new technologies will be required to work in such an inhospitable environment. New oil platforms will have to be designed to handle the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean; nuclear icebreakers (currently in use by Russia) may be needed to reach the platforms and guide the supertankers both to pick up their cargo and deliver it…and perhaps even more exotic technologies. The book excerpt linked above mentions the possibility of forgoing the surface platform entirely – a scenario where the wellhead is drilled and capped with a reservoir. The reservoir would then be tapped by a submarine-tanker which can carry the oil under the ice to markets around the world. Before you laugh, remember that the largest submarines in the world are already quite large – and a nuclear submarine is far easier to handle under the ice than a massive supertanker trying to go through it.
So this then is the future of powering the Earth’s demand for oil and natural gas – superpowers fighting over frozen wastelands, debating geophysical boundaries and terms and sending massive sub-tankers to tap the precious resources trapped under an icy ocean. The desert sands and Sheikhs will hand the reins of the world’s energy markets over to the snow and Inuit.