U.S. has significant interests in untapped mineral wealth in Arctic
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic region is the largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on earth with an estimated ninety billion barrels of undiscovered oil reserves, and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In addition, the unpredictability of the Persian Gulf region makes the Arctic region even more attractive for exploitation.
Shrinking ice caps, melting permafrost, and technological advances enable greater access to the region’s abundant oil and gas reserves, which include as much as one-fifth of the undiscovered petroleum on the planet. With longer ice-free periods now available to explore for hydrocarbons, a new scramble for oil and gas could occur especially if oil prices recover to levels above $100 per barrel. In July 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that the Arctic comprises 30 percent of the world’s remaining natural gas resources, or 44 billion barrels, and 13 percent of untapped oil supplies, or 90 billion barrels. Nearly all (84 percent) of the oil and gas is expected to occur offshore, and most of the projected reserves are located in waters less than 500 meters deep and will likely fall within the uncontested jurisdiction of one or another Arctic costal state. “The extensive Arctic continental shelves may constitute the geographically largest unexplored prospec- tive area for petroleum remaining on Earth.”7 The Arctic already accounts for one-tenth of global conventional petroleum reserves, and the projections of the latest USGS study did not even ad- dress the potential for developing energy sources such as oil shale, gas hydrates, and coal-bed methane, all of which could be present. But with it comes the risk of increased pollution, pos- sible spills from oil and gas, and the threat of contaminating water sources during the extraction process.
It also includes massive oil and gas deposits—the main reason the region is so economically promising. Located primarily in western Siberia and Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, the Arctic’s oil and gas fields account for 10.5 percent of global oil production and 25.5 percent of global gas production. And those numbers could soon jump. Initial estimates suggest that the Arctic may be home to an estimated 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and gas deposits, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. These riches have become newly accessible and attractive, thanks to retreating sea ice, a lengthening summer drilling season, and new exploration technologies.
Private companies are already moving in. Despite high extraction costs and regulatory hurdles, Shell has invested $5 billion to look for oil in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, and the Scottish company Cairn Energy has invested $1 billion do the same off the coast of Greenland. Gazprom and Rosneft are planning to invest many billions of dollars more to develop the Russian Arctic, where the state-owned companies are partnering with ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Eni, and Statoil to tap remote reserves in Siberia. The fracking boom may eventually exert down- ward pressure on oil prices, but it hasn’t changed the fact that the Arctic contains tens of billions of barrels of conventional oil that will one day contribute to a greater global supply. Moreover, that boom has also reached the Arctic. Oil fracking exploration has already begun in northern Alaska, and this past spring, Shell and Gazprom signed a major deal to develop shale oil in the Russian Arctic.
Then there are the minerals. Now, longer summers are providing additional time to prospect mineral deposits, and retreating sea ice is opening deep-water ports for their export. The Arctic is already home to the world’s most productive zinc mine, ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Red Dog, in northern Alaska, and its most productive nickel mine, in Norilsk, in northern Russia. Thanks mostly to Russia, the Arctic produces 40 percent of the world’s palladium, 20 percent of its diamonds, 15 percent of its platinum, 11 percent of its cobalt, ten percent of its nickel, nine percent of its tungsten, and eight percent of its zinc. Alaska has more than 150 prospective deposits of rare-earth elements, and if the state were its own country, it would rank in the top ten in global reserves for many of these minerals. And all these assets are just the beginning. The Arctic has only begun to be surveyed. Once the digging starts, there is every reason to expect that, as often happens, even greater quantities of riches will be uncovered.
According to a 2008 assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), “the total mean undiscovered conventional oil and gas resources in the Arctic are estimated to be approximately 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.”17 The overwhelming majority of these resources—84 percent—is expected to occur in offshore areas. Over 70 percent “of the mean undiscovered oil resources is estimated to occur in five provinces: Arctic Alaska, Amerasia Basin, East Greenland Rift Basins, East Barents Basins, and West Green- land-East Canada.”18 Similarly, over 70 percent “of the undiscovered natural gas is estimated to occur in three provinces: the West Siberian Basin, the East Barents Basins, and Arctic Alaska.”19 Arctic Alaska, the Amerasia Ba- sin, and the North Chukchi-Wrangel Foreland Basin provinces, portions of which could be claimed by the United States, account for over 40 million barrels of oil, 284 billion cubic feet of natural gas, 6.5 million barrels of natural gas liquids and 94 million barrels of oil and oil-equivalent natural gas.20 The value of these resources is estimated to be in the trillions of dollars.21
Traditionally, national security is conceptualized as hard and soft power or military might and diplomatic influence. Economic strength, however, is the foundation of power. Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proclaimed that debt poses the biggest threat to U.S. national security.1 Although his warning hardly raised an eyebrow, the economic engines that are China and Germany—and their corresponding global strength—are evidence of the interdependence of economic and national security.
For the United States, greater economic security can be supplied by the untapped resources of the Arctic, where this nation has been dealt an exceptional, yet underutilized, hand. The U.S. share of the Alaskan Arctic holds an estimated 30 billion barrels of oil and more than 220 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, as well as rare earth minerals and massive renewable wind, tidal, and geothermal sources of energy. Unprecedented climate changes have increased access to the region and transformed it into an emerging commercial sector. In total, the economic potential amounts to trillions of dollars. In this period of financial stagnation, developing these energy sources would be a tremendous boost to the United States.
The race for resources is on, although the United States remains at the starting gate. Joining Arctic neighbors in the exploration for and extraction of oil, gas, and rare earth minerals in the U.S. portion could provide an economic boon to the flailing economy of the United States. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) stated that ‘‘The extensive Arctic continental shelves may constitute the geographically largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on earth.’’11 In the report, the USGS estimates that 90 billion barrels of oil, nearly 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids may remain to be discovered throughout the region. Nearly all (84 percent) of the oil and gas is expected to be found offshore. The USGS estimate for total undiscovered oil and gas in the Arctic exceeds the total discovered amount of Arctic oil and oil-equivalent natural gas.12
The United States stands atop a precipice, faced with a momentous opportunity to take advantage of trillions of dollars in natural resources, while sim- ultaneously restoring the nation’s economic security through governance and job creation. Governance is the first step. Ratifying the Law of the Sea Conven- tion must be a priority for the administration or the United States will lose economically and could be challenged as the global maritime leader. The Inter- national Maritime Organization will remain the key vehicle for governance mechanisms. AIS expansion, as well as mandated Arctic shipping guidelines and establishing traffic patterns should be top priorities for the United States. Governance needs to be accompanied by a significant acquisition program to keep pace with the other Arctic nations. Ice- breakers, additional aircraft, and infrastructure can no longer be shoehorned into a Coast Guard budget, which has inadequate funding even for recapitaliza- tion of its Vietnam-era fleet.
The United States needs an Arctic economic development strategy that incorporates the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce, and Energy. Such strategy should include plans for shore-based infrastructure, communications, and surveillance technology, icebreakers, and response aircraft for the region. In an era of declining budgets, the simplest course of action would be to ignore the tremendous potential of investment in the Arctic. However, such willful turning away reduces our ability to reap tremendous economic benefits and could harm U.S. national security interests.
The U.S. Geological Survey released a report in 2008 that indicated approximately 13 percent of the world’s untapped oil reserves reside in the Arctic region. One-third of these reserves lie inside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the northern slope of Alaska. The report also estimated that approximately 30 percent of the world’s remaining natural gas reserves reside within the Arctic region.19 In recent years, icecap melting, along with advances in technology, has rendered retrieval of natural resources in the Arctic both feasible and acceptable in terms of environmental risk.
The potential implications of this extended continental shelf regime are profound. With one of the largest coastlines in the world, the United States is expected to have over 291,000 square miles of extended continental shelf.89 The U.S. continental margin off the coast of Alaska alone may extend to a minimum of 600 miles from the Alaskan baseline.90 Alaska’s extended continental shelf lies over the Arctic Alaska province, one of the many oil- and gas-rich basins in the Arctic.91 It is estimated that there may be almost 73 billion barrels of oil and oil-equivalent natural gas located in the Arctic Alaska province, the second highest estimated production capability of all Arctic provinces.92 The continental shelf within the 200-mile EEZ under the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas alone may have over 23 billion barrels of oil and 104 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.93 Not only would development of these resources promote energy independence, a U.S. national security objective,94 it would also create almost 55,000 jobs per year nationwide and generate over $193 billion in federal, state, and local revenue over a fifty-year period.95 Due to delays in Arctic oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, both within the U.S. 200-mile EEZ, the earliest estimated date of extraction is sometime after 2019.96
Oil and natural gas are not the only resources likely to be found in the Arctic valuable minerals may also exist on the seabed. Scientists have long known about unconventional mineral ore deposits known as manganese nodules. These nodules are spherical accretions of manganese, cobalt, copper and nickel which precipitate out of sea water at depth. n48 They form when warm solutions of dissolved metals from the earth's crust leach into cold ocean waters, and they are found on roughly a quarter of the ocean floor.n49 Recovering the nodules can be technically difficult. The nodules are usually found under at least 2 miles of water and dredging them stirs large quantities of sediment which seriously disrupts marine habitat.n50 Thus, excitement surrounding the minerals has calmed significantly since the 1970's.n51 Not only must the technology become cheaper and more widely available, but industrial commodity prices must also remain high to make manganese nodules profitable.n52