The news that massive deposits of oil and gas have been found in the Arctic confirms what geologists, oil companies and governments have believed for decades: that these icy wastes house vast fossil fuel resources. But the precise estimate now made by the United States Geological Survey – suggesting that the region contains about one-third of the world's undiscovered gas and about one-sixth of its undiscovered oil – is bound, at a time of high oil prices, to accelerate what could well be the world's last great colonial scramble.
That scramble has been proceeding steadily, without much fanfare, for some time. There are already more than 400 oil and gas fields north of the Arctic Circle. Shell has quietly spent $2bn (£1bn) acquiring drilling leases off Alaska. ExxonMobil and BP have spent huge sums on exploration rights off Canada. Just last week the US government lifted a 17-year ban on offshore drilling to make the US less reliant on imports.
The powers that border the Arctic – Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway and Denmark – have begun jostling for advantage. Last year a Russian submarine planted a flag under the North Pole to stake its claim. Canada is talking about commissioning 12 new nuclear-powered submarines to patrol the waters. Moscow has built a huge fleet of heavy icebreakers.
Environmental arguments – about the need to preserve this final pristine wilderness and to protect endangered species and the 160,000 remaining Inuit who have lived in the High Arctic for thousands of years – are being brushed aside, as ever. But the context is different now.
The Arctic is one of the most prominent battlegrounds in the fight against global warming. It is a bitter irony that oil extraction is now more feasible, and economic, than before because the ice has been melted thanks to climate change. The further release of methane trapped in the thawing permafrost could accelerate that, perhaps uncontrollably.
Instead of scrambling into Arctic exploration what governments and energy companies should be doing is exploring alternatives to oil. Even these massive new finds in the Arctic will only meet current world demand for three years. And that demand is rising.
China now has 30 million drivers and, like India, a middle class which is mushrooming. And no matter how much oil is found, it will be no solution, for burning more oil will only add to the vicious circle in which the ecology of the planet is confined. It would be best if the Arctic were to remain an inaccessible wilderness. We need to look for solutions elsewhere.