Arctic fossil fuels – race to reach the poles threatens climate change


image: porbital /

In the early part of the last century, global attention was captivated by the endeavours of explorers racing to reach the poles and to map the surrounding terrain and waters. While there can be no doubt that it was the prospect of financial gain through geological prospecting that drove many of the benefactors to fund these expeditions, primarily the impetus of the explorers was to gain prestige for themselves and/or their countries (either by claiming new lands or by achieving significant records). The huge personal sacrifices made by many of these early explorers in their attempts to discover these polar regions are testament to the ideological fervour that drove them to incredible feats of human endurance in their quest for knowledge.

In the early part of this century, interest in the polar regions has been renewed but, regrettably, for all the wrong reasons. Although it had long been presumed that such regions held extensive mineralogical deposits, the harsh climate made prospecting there an unfeasible venture. However, now, with the prospect of global climate change, nations (and private enterprise) are once again turning their eyes to the poles with the sole purpose of stripping them of their resources.

This is evidenced by the recent accession of countries such as India, China and Japan (among others) to observer status of the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council only has eight permanent members (consisting of countries bordering and adjacent to the Arctic) and has limited powers. Up to now, it has mainly been viewed as an environmental protection agency for the Arctic, but the prospect of climate change opening up the region to commercial exploitation make it likely that it will adopt a more political, governance role in the years ahead. The requests for inclusion by these new observer states highlight the growing interest around the world in staking claim to Arctic fossil fuels.

Similarly, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a number of border countries are laying claim to significant portions of the Arctic seabed, including Canada, Norway, Denmark and Russia. In 2007, Russia planted a flag on the seabed of the North Pole, raising concerns that the race to stake a territorial claim on the region had begun in earnest.

No treaty akin to the Antarctic Treaty exists for the Arctic. The Antarctic Treaty was opened for signature in 1959 and has been signed to date by 50 nations. It prohibits mineral prospection and military activity, but promotes scientific investigation. Additional agreements aim to protect the Antarctic environment from human degradation. Thus, for now at least, the Antarctic is viewed out-of-bounds for commercial exploration; though the line between scientific and resource exploration may become increasingly blurred in the future. Although the Ilulissat Declaration of 2008 exists to block any “new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic Ocean”, it only involves the five border countries, the indigenous populations of the region were not consulted on it, and it doesn’t specifically prohibit prospection for mineral resources.

Already, some major oil exploration companies have begun drilling in Arctic waters and, although they have experienced various set-backs, it is only a matter of time before full-scale multi-nation prospecting is underway.

This drive to exploit the resources of the Arctic, and possibly at some future time the Antarctic, is lamentable. The resources in question are largely carbon-based and their extraction will only compound the huge adverse effects that carbon-based energy consumption is having on the polar regions and globally. The short-sightedness of pillaging the poles for immediate economic gain, the effect of which will ultimately result in severe economic hardship later due to climate change, is astounding. This generation of greed and selfishness in providing only for oneself is in stark contrast to previous ones where the ultimate goal was to provide for your children. The legacy of the races to the poles in the last century was to inspire generations of scientific exploration worldwide to expand on human knowledge – the legacy of this century’s race to the poles will be a world ravaged by climate change and climate conflict.

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John O'Brien

Dr. John O’Brien is a zoologist with significant experience in Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Industrial Microbiology, Medicine, Pharmaceuticals and Mathematics. John has worked extensively in both the academic and animal conservation fields. John holds a Ph.D. in Conservation Genetics from University College Dublin, Ireland
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