As Arctic Ice Vanishes, More Nations Want in on Its Untapped Oil

The Arctic Council adds China, India, Korea and more to the decision-making body that largely controls the fate of 13 percent of the world's undiscovered gas reserves.

A Greenpeace activist dressed in a polar bear stands woutside the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow on May 17, 2013 to protest oil drilling in the Arctic. (Photo: Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters) 

May 27, 2013· 1 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

Until the Arctic ice began its serious meltdown just a few years ago, hardly anyone cared about the small group of nations that comprised the governing council that met every two years to ponder the future of the far north.

Today, the Arctic Council, created in 1996, would seem to be the coolest club on the planet and every nation wants in.

The region lays claim to 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil resources and nearly a third of its undiscovered natural gas.

Last week, in its biennial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, high above the Arctic Circle, the eight-nation council voted on six new members, none with any geographic link to the north: China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore were granted “permanent observer” status.

The council is made up of the eight Arctic nations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

The once largely symbolic organization, formed to promote cooperation on environmental protection, oil and mineral exploitation, shipping, tourism and fishing, has matured to one addressing the quickening pace and consequences of climate change in the Arctic, prompting what has already been called “a Great New Game.”

Other than new members, the group agreed on and adopted only its second legally-binding agreement, to prepare and coordinate a response to potential spills that could result from increasing oil and gas exploration. Two years ago, in Greenland, the council adopted an agreement to coordinate search and rescue operations over 13 million square miles of ocean.

The reason China and other seemingly un-polar nations desperately want in on the future decision-making up north is not so that it can weigh in on rescues and oil spills. It wants to make sure it has a voice as the Arctic ice continues to disappear and access to the oil and gas that lies beneath it is made available.

The region lays claim to 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil resources and nearly a third of its undiscovered natural gas. That captures the attention of an economic juggernaut in search of alternatives to its dependence on coal power and foreign oil.

In 2010, according to The New York Times, only four ships carrying 111,000 tons of cargo made the northern passage; by last year, 46 did, carrying 1.26 million tons. Among those was China’s first ship through the Arctic, an icebreaker called “Xuelong,” or “Snow Dragon.”

China has been aggressively pushing it way into the region. In addition to sending the icebreaker through the Arctic, country has been throwing money at Iceland and lobbying Norway hard to make sure it got a seat at the table.

Similarly, India and the Arctic would seem an odd fit, but access to an ice-free Arctic saves its shippers more than 40 percent.

Concerns about any rush north are straightforward and real. Reckless development in a fragile environment will have disastrous and long-term consequences. Protestors outside the meeting carried signs demanding “No Arctic Oil.”

In its final declaration of the summit, the Arctic Council said though it recognized “the central role of business in the development of the Arctic,” it called for cautious development.

We’ll see how that goes, as the Arctic ice disappears faster and faster.