On Thin Ice

Will global warming kick off a new (black) gold rush in the Arctic?

| March-April 2011

When American explorer Robert Peary reached the North Pole in 1909, he wired President William Howard Taft to let him know that he’d claimed the territory for the United States. Taft’s response? “Thanks for your interesting and generous offer. I do not know exactly what I could do with it.”

Taft’s indifference reflected the prevailing sentiment of the day: Why would anyone want an inhospitable, frozen wasteland?

The Cold War changed this line of thinking. Suddenly, the Arctic became a choice piece of real estate. It was the perfect surveillance point for listening in on enemies and the quickest bombing route between the Soviet Union and North America.

The Cold War may be long over, but nations are still salivating over the Arctic—just for very different reasons. Geologists estimate that nearly 20 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas may be lingering beneath the Arctic’s frigid waters. Indeed, the Arctic could contain more than 90 billion barrels of oil, which is enough to supply the world’s demand for three years. And the U.S. Geological Survey believes that the region also holds about one-third of the world’s untapped natural gas reserves.

Until recently, extracting those resources seemed like a long shot. As the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated, getting black gold out of the ocean’s floor is no simple task, and the potential for environmental damage is real. While Arctic oil drillers don’t have to contend with the Gulf’s hurricane season, cutting through the ice is difficult and expensive, and the massive icebergs threaten to topple offshore rigs.

But as the ice melts, these hurdles are disappearing. The crowning irony is that by burning fossil fuels, we’ve helped to melt the Arctic, giving us access to more fossil fuels.