Oil and the race for the North Pole

Members of the expedition led by US naval commander Robert Peary, at the North Pole in April 1909. They are the first to reach it. Today, Canada, Russia, the U.S., Norway and Denmark all are jockeying for control in the region. Doesn't Santa have a say in this?

Just in time for the Christmas season comes this question, courtesy of our friends in Canada. Exactly who controls the North Pole? It turns out, no one. This week, however, the Canadian foreign affairs minister created a stir by announcing that his country plans to lay claim to the North Pole seabed, an expansion of Canada’s territorial claims in the region.  Canada is asking scientists to draft a submission to the United Nations asserting that the outer limits of its continental shelf include the North Pole.

Interest in the Arctic is heating up as global warming shrinks the ice there, opening up new sea routes and commerce. Canada, Russia, the U.S., Norway and Denmark are all jockeying for position in the region. Their claims to various parts of it depend on geologic-mapping that will take years, but the region could be ice-free by 2030,  according to some estimates. That opens up room for commerce. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the region holds about 90 billion barrels of oil, around 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. That amounts to almost a third of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of its oil, according to the USGS’s Alex Demas.

Robert Huebert, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, says none of it will be easy to access. “It’s very cold. It will remain cold even in the face of climate change,” says Huebert. “It will remain dark throughout most of the year. Logistically it’s very difficult to supply and it’s deeper water than we’re used to.”

Fourteen thousand feet deep, actually. Canadian legal scholar Michael Byers at the University of British Columbia says the idea that “anyone is going to be drilling for oil at the North Pole within the next century is a bit ambitious.” 

“This is mostly about symbolism,” says Byers. “And it’s also about a Canadian prime minister who faces a re-election campaign in the next two years and not wanting to be the prime minister who formally gives up the idea of Canadian sovereignty at the North Pole.”

John Higginbotham, a former Canadian transport official, agrees Canada’s North Pole announcement this week is largely symbolic.

“This government has never failed to pick up an opportunity to push the Canadian identity, Canadian sovereignty button whenever it can,” he says.

The University of Calgary's Huebert says countries with Arctic interests are in this for the long term, so they’re interested in claiming as much territory as they can. After all, he says, technology advances can create commercial opportunities that nobody saw coming.

“I mean, think of North Dakota,” Huebert says, referring to the state’s fracking boom.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...