In all probability the underlying import of Obama’s decision to open new stretches of the outercontinental shelf along the East coast and off Alaska will be to support the race for natural gas in the Arctic. I began writing about the Arctic back in the 1970s, but its import has only gradually come to the fore. Experts think we’re running out of oil and gas, in which case the big deposits in the Arctic are among our last.
Estimates are that below the Beaufort Sea lie 8 billion barrels of oil and 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Even if these estimates turn out to be wildly inflated, the lure is sufficient to set off a complex set of conflicts–between the big oil corporations to see who gets what, and among nations–particularly Canada, the U.S., and Russia.
More Arctic gas will require an immense undertaking to build a pipeline down into the lower 48–either straight down into the Northwest and/or through the Mackenzie Delta to the Midwest. Up to now the cost of a gas pipeline has been prohibitive; the Canadian energy industry had planned to use the gas coming up the Mackenzie Delta to turn that country’s plentiful deposits of tar sands into oil, which could be shipped to refineries around Chicago. But environmental problems have raised questions about this project, and driven by concerns for a clean fuel and overall climate control, the pipeline may now begin to seem more feasible.
There are other reasons Obama’s announcement is important: The rapid melting of Arctic ice has introduced an entirely new factor into this play. To the north and east of the Beaufort Sea, the fabled Northwest Passage hits the North Pacific. At the eastern most end, it meets the North Atlantic, passing between Greenland and Iceland. For centuries this passage has been frozen over for all but a short time during the summer. Now there is renewed speculation the passage will be open and navigable within a decade for big tankers and container ships. This ought to bring a boom in shipping because the passage cuts by one-third the distance from Europe to Asia. Commercial fishing boats will be able to get at vast schools of fish hitherto unreachable because of the ice. The world’s stock of fish has long been predicted to decline due to overharvesting.
In a Vancouver speech in 2006 discussing the Northwest Passage, Michael Byers, an expert in international law at the University of British Columbia, warned of future dangers for Canada:
Canadians should be alarmed. An international shipping route along Canada’s third coast could facilitate the entry of drugs, guns, illegal immigrants and perhaps even terrorists into this country, as well as providing an alternative route for illicit shipments of weapons of mass destruction or missile components by rogue states. And any shipping involves the risk of accidents, particularly in remote and icy waters. An oil spill would cause catastrophic damage to fragile Arctic ecosystems; a cruise ship in distress would require an expensive and possibly dangerous rescue mission. Any new fishery will be highly susceptible to over-exploitation, particularly because of the difficult-to-police location, rapid declines in fish stocks elsewhere and the consequent, excess fishing capacity that now exists worldwide.’