In the second of our Climate Week blogs, we look at the controversial issue of exploring the Arctic for oil and gas resources.
The Arctic has fascinated explorers for hundreds of years, from Rennaissance attempts to find a Northwest Passage, to the 20th century race for the North Pole. For the oil and gas industry, the area holds a particular thrall, as a potential source of huge amounts of fossil fuels. But should we exploit the Arctic for its oil and gas resources? Will it cause further damage to the climate, or buy time for research into alternative energy sources?
‘There’s very few places on the planet where we can still expect to find large volumes of oil and gas’ says Imperial College’s Professor Al Fraser. ‘The arctic circle is 5,000 km across…of that area north of the Arctic Circle, about 50% is continental shelf. When we have continental shelves, we have the possibility of basins, and with basins the possibility of oil and gas.’
‘So the geology is not the problem here. We know enough to say there’s probably oil and gas. The problems are going to be the politics, the technology and the environmental impact.’
While no country owns the North Pole or surrounding ocean, Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Russia and the US lay claim to economic zones around their own coastlines, and will be the major beneficiaries of any exploration. There are also four million people living in the Arctic, who should surely also have their say. But should we be thinking about Arctic resources at all?
According to Professor Fraser, we haven’t got much choice. ‘Energy use on our planet is constantly increasing – we’re hooked on energy. It would be wonderful if we could switch to entirely renewable sources tomorrow, but we can’t. We’re still dependent on fossil fuels.’
‘There’s plenty of oil and gas around the world, but its unevenly distributed. The people who have it are generally in the middle east, and the people who want it are in the far east, Europe, and North America. The insecurity of supply means we need alternative sources.’
The Arctic being one of them – but what about environmental concerns?
‘I think environmentalists provide an important barrier to the worst excesses of the oil and gas industry who, given a free reign aren’t always on their best behaviour…they keep the industry honest’ says Professor Fraser. ‘The oil industry can explore for and produce oil and gas environmentally sensibly and safely.’
Whatever happens, it seems inevitable that Arctic resources will be explored, and sooner rather than later. And the more ice melts, the easier it will be. There’s an irony to that which Professor Fraser acknowledges.
‘It’s a paradox – the oil companies have produced a project that has put the carbon in the atmosphere, that’s warmed the planet, that has melted the ice that allows oil and gas comanpies to explore the arctic.’
Nevertheless, he is optimistic about future of our climate, and the role the Arctic might play. ‘There’s a lot of us on this planet, and no chance in the foreseeable future of our energy requirement not growing. The Arctic potentially buys us 30 years of energy, to give us a chance to find the next energy solution. That’s what we can hope for from the Arctic.’
- Hear more from Al Fraser on oil and gas in the Arctic in our latest podcast.