Future sources of oil

In September 2008, the European Union (EU) energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, argued that the Western energy firms would need to look to the Arctic region in order to acquire energy security. 'You even need to go into hostile environments' such as the Arctic, he claimed. 'You can't say "this is a sanctuary" because it will not work . . . otherwise where will we get energy from?' Provided 'all environmental precautions' were taken, Piebalgs continued, he was supportive of the position taken by the giant Norwegian oil and gas firm Statoil, which has already invested huge sums in searching the Arctic coastline for new reserves. Statoil's director, Helge Lund, has argued that 'any realistic energy strategy in the future will have to rely on oil and gas' and that a 'massive exploration effort' is required in the Arctic.13 These views were echoed soon after in the EU's first official document on the Arctic region, which argued that its 'resources could contribute to enhancing the EU's security of supply concerning energy and raw materials in general'.14

Most experts feel sure that the region still has vast, untapped sources of oil that could conceivably dwarf its existing output. The 2008 survey by the USGS concluded that one-third of the Arctic's undiscovered oil, about 30 billion barrels, lies off the coast of Alaska. 'It is the most obvious place to look for oil in the North Arctic right now', as the chief geologist in the survey has pointed out. 'It is virtually certain that petroleum will be found there.'15 Western Siberia is also considered to be very promising. The USGS estimates that there are 3.6 billion barrels of undiscovered oil throughout the West Siberian Basin province as well as considerably more in other parts of northern Russia that lie north of the Arctic Circle.16

The American experts also considered the coast of Greenland to be the other chief oil-bearing Arctic region. Although some efforts to explore this area were made in the late 1970s, oil was first discovered here only in 1992, seeping out of rocks not far from a stretch of coast in the Disko-Nuussuaq region of West Greenland. The area was properly surveyed in 2007, when a huge offshore tract off the eastern coast, covering nearly 200,000 square miles, was the subject of another USGS survey. Judging that several areas were 'potentially good source rocks' and 'potentially promising' for liquid petroleum, the scientists reckoned that there are approximately 17.5 billion barrels of oil off Greenland's coasts.17

Not surprisingly the prospect of reaping a future oil bonanza has caused enormous excitement among Greenlanders, as well as consternation in Copenhagen, which has ruled this continental landmass since 1720.18 'This is an epoch-making time, and how we handle it will be of colossal significance', as Aleqa Hammond, Greenland's minister of Foreign Affairs and Finance, put it in 2008. 'Greenland will be a player in the global arena in many more ways than we can even begin to imagine.' And it has certainly created real interest in the world of commercial oil. In October 2007, Greenland's government awarded exploration licences to Chevron, ExxonMobil and Husky Energy, all of which wasted no time in collecting seismic data to determine the best drilling sites.

Although the most oil-rich areas of the Arctic are widely considered to be in Russia and Greenland, there are others that are also thought to be full of promise. In particular, very positive signs of oil have been discovered in an area, known as Derki, which lies on Iceland's Jan Mayen Ridge. In the summer of 2008, an Icelandic oceanographic research ship, the Arni Fridgeirsson, returned from the region after mapping around 15,000 square miles of ocean with the latest scanning technology, and found strong indications of oil in an underwater terrain that appeared to strongly resemble the North Sea. At the same time the Icelandic government has been working hard to attract investment in this region from some of the world's biggest oil companies, and in early 2009 had started to finalize the terms for its first offshore licences. Several British groups and Statoil were among those that were said to be interesting in bidding for about 100 exploration licences.

Icelandic officials admit that bringing this oil to the surface would not be an easy feat because the depth of the water ranges from 2,500 to about 6,000 feet, but argue that it is a much more feasible operation than before. A manager at Iceland's Energy Authority has pointed out that in the 1990s, plans to explore the region had been scrapped because the area was considered too challenging, but a decade on, deep water projects in the Gulf of Mexico and in Brazilian waters showed that 'the technology now exists'.19

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