Rocks and precious metals

Disagreements about who owns the numerous other natural resources in the Arctic region could certainly fuel international mistrust and controversy and perhaps even cause brief, though serious, incidents in which ammunition as well as harsh words are exchanged. But they are not important enough in their own right to cause a 'resource war'.

Over the past few years governments and private investors have begun to regard the Arctic as a very promising source of mineral wealth and started to search for deposits of gold, diamonds, platinum, nickel kimberlite and other precious stones. To some extent this interest reflects the dramatic surge of recent years in the market price of minerals, driven mainly by a massive growth in demand from China.17 Despite the market crash of late 2008, the value of these commodities has been driven high enough to make some very expensive and risky mining operations commercially viable for the first time.

The impact of climate change is also playing its part. Above all, the melting of the overland permafrost and the polar ice cap means that some mining sites are only now becoming accessible. So until the late 1990s glaciers covered around 80 per cent of northern and north-eastern Greenland, but the gradual retreat of the ice is enabling mining companies to explore areas that were previously inaccessible and to work there for longer spells than was hitherto possible. 'Global warming has extended the working and exploring development season by a few weeks, as higher temperatures mean the frozen ice is leaving a couple of weeks earlier', as one mining expert told an American newspaper. 'With the rapid melting of the snow early in June, surface exploration is proceeding a month earlier than would have been possible one or two decades ago.'18

An example of just such an operation is an old zinc and lead excavation site on Greenland's west coast, about 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, known as the Black Angel mine. Once famous for the high quality of its zinc ore, it was shut in the early 1990s because commodity prices were depressed at a time of worldwide recession and because operating so far north was hugely expensive. But in the intervening years the local climate and conditions have changed considerably. Above all, geologists made a breakthrough in 2005, when they came across a huge deposit of sulphide, stretching more than half a mile, which had been uncovered as a glacier retreated. A British company, Angus & Ross, then started to mine the site and by early 2009, in the space of just 3 years, its operations there had become highly fruitful.

The great ice thaw is not only making it easier to get minerals out of the ground but also to move them to the market place. Big international companies are likely to step up their efforts to find precious stones in northern Canada, for example, partly because the economic case for building vital infrastructure to remote locations looks stronger than ever. In particular, the reduction of sea ice in the Northwest Passage might eventually mean that the annual shipping season - the summer months when cargoes can move relatively unimpeded - will become shorter than ever, and this would in turn make it more viable than before to justify the huge capital outlay of building a deep-water port on Canada's northern coast. This port, as well as numerous other sites, could then be linked to excavation sites by the construction of all-weather gravel roads that would have been too difficult and too expensive to build before local ice began to melt. In recent years, the changing picture in the Canadian Arctic has lured the South African-owned mining company De Beers, whose directors regard the region as 'a very exciting area of prospectivity for many different types of precious metals'.19

So far, all of these valuable minerals have been discovered well within existing borders and are therefore most unlikely to be the cause of any confrontation between rival powers. In any event, governments have other ways - more effective and less costly than the use of military force - in which they can access rare commodities. So in its paper 'The Raw Materials Initiative' the EU has argued that future shortages of some precious metals can be partly met by ensuring fair trade. This might mean stopping any country from placing restrictions on how and where it sells its exports; preventing any practices that unfairly distort the market price or put other countries at a disadvantage; lowering import tariffs on some raw materials; and encouraging free trade agreements, including accession agreements to the World Trade Organization, while fully enforcing existing ones. The document also points out that future shortages can be met by sustainable management of demand and resource efficiency.20

These considerations, which weigh so strongly against the possibility of a war fought over precious metals, are also true of another underground resource found in the region.

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