Arctic nations see opportunity in receding sea ice
but the economic rewards may prove elusive
In April 2010, I was camped on a precarious ice floe close to where the magnetic North Pole once was before it continued to drift toward Russian territory. During the time I was there, the temperature never rose above -25 Celsius with the wind chill. Sleep did not come easy in a tent that was constantly flapping in the wind. Nor did the eating of meals I lined up for in the steamy mist of a frozen Quonset hut. The one shower I allowed myself in the bitter cold was little more than a spray of water ingeniously warmed by the exhaust of groaning diesel generators heating the pipes.
Camped with me were more than three dozen men and women—scientists, engineers, and pilots with military, civilian, and scientific backgrounds. Collectively, they had been assigned the task of cleaning toilets, washing floors, plowing snow, cutting giant holes in the ice, and redrawing the map of the future Arctic in Canada’s favour by the end of 2013.
As uncertain as the future of polar bears, caribou, belugas, birds, and other animals is in a rapidly warming Arctic, the physical features that define boundaries between nations with maritime borders in the polar region are becoming increasingly clear. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country can lay claim to the ocean floor beyond the internationally recognized 200-nautical mile limit. But in order to do so, it has to prove that the seabed is an extension of its continental shelf.
Until a couple of decades ago, Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, and Denmark—the five coastal Arctic states with legitimate claims—showed very little interest in extending their claims because there didn’t seem to be anything of value in the perpetually frozen unclaimed regions of the Arctic. But once the receding sea ice began revealing a potential treasure trove of oil, gas, and minerals, each country began spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the hopes of adding millions of square kilometres to their Arctic boundaries.
In Cold Rush: The Astonishing True Story of the New Quest for the Polar North, Danish journalist Martin Breum examines this unfolding scenario largely from the Danish point of view and especially from that of Greenlanders. Greenlanders are self-governing, not independent of Denmark, but they hope to be if their claim to those fossil fuel and mineral rich areas of the Arctic comes to fruition. Breum sees the race to own and control the Arctic as a complex and potentially dangerous international game-changer that could lead to military conflict. His thesis is well argued, but it overstates the danger because diplomacy has so far worked well. And even if Russia, the dark knight in this story, has no intention of playing nice, most everyone will likely figure out that the rewards from frontier oil and gas and mineral exploitation won’t be lucrative enough to risk a nasty fight.
The race to the Arctic did begin in earnest, as Breum contends, in 2007 when a Russian submarine planted a Russian flag, cast in rust-free titanium, on the sea floor at the North Pole -during a record year for sea ice retreat. The event was choreographed and filmed in a manner that was clearly intended to announce to the world, and to the Russian people back home, that the seabed under the pole, the eighteen-hundred-kilometre-long Lomonosov Ridge, was an extension of Russia’s continental shelf.
Some Arctic experts, and more than a few political leaders, feared that this was the beginning of a series of more provocative gestures by the Russians to lay claim over the Arctic’s oil and gas and mineral resources. “This is not the fifteenth century,” Peter MacKay, Canada’s foreign affairs minister at the time, stated. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ ”
As Breum points out, the flag-planting kicked off a series of events that led to Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States signing the Ilulissat Declaration in Greenland in 2008. As part of that declaration, the countries reaffirmed their support for the Arctic Council and the UN Law of the Sea Convention and vowed to work out overlapping claims in the Arctic in an orderly manner.
Breum is not alone in making more of the flag planting than is actually there. Following the declaration, politicians were lining up to the microphones to congratulate themselves. Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state at the time, was among them. The reality is no one was undermining the Arctic Council, as Breum implies. On the contrary, a lot of non-Arctic nations, such as China, were trying to be admitted as observers. If there was criticism, it was in the reluctance of Canada and other Arctic countries to allow northern Indigenous leaders to play a more prominent role on the council. Hillary Clinton rebuked Canada for not inviting Indigenous leaders to a summit of Arctic coastal nations held in Montreal in 2010.
The only outlier in recognizing the role of the UN Law of the Sea was not Russia but rather the United States, which still has not ratified the accord. (Canada and the U.S. have disputed maritime territory, including a pie slice of waters off the Yukon-Alaska border that is within our exclusive economic zone.) But if the Russian flag-planting was a shot across the bow, what do we make of Canada and the United States planting their own flags at the North Pole in 1994 while the Russian icebreaker Yamal was standing by? The Russians did not respond with indignation or threats, but with an invitation to come on board and sip vodka.
And speaking of showboating in the Arctic, Breum does not mention Denmark’s dust-up with Canada over Hans Island, a 130-hectare chunk of lifeless rock off the coast of Ellesmere Island. Duelling claims to the island have been farcical, with both countries dispatching helicopters and frigates, planting flags, toasting victory, and briefly occupying the island at various times in recent years, respectively leaving behind bottles of Canadian whisky or Danish schnapps. The truth is that diplomacy, not conflict, has triumphed more often than not in the Arctic. The future of Hans Island is now with the diplomats and all signs show that an amicable resolution is at hand.
In 2010, Russia and Norway resolved their Arctic boundary dispute, in the area around Novaya Zemlya archipelago on the Russian side and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, in a similar way.
In October 2018, the so-called Arctic Five (Canada, Norway, Russia, the United States, and Denmark in respect of Greenland and the Faroe Islands) plus the major fishing nations of Iceland, Japan, South Korea, China, and the European Union, signed a legally binding international accord that will protect nearly three million square kilometres of the central Arctic Ocean from unregulated fishing. Inexplicably, Breum makes no mention of the accord even though it has been in the works for years.
Russia, more than any other state, however, is the elephant in the room because of its Cold War record in the Arctic, its continued hostile annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and because of its military might and icebreaker capabilities. The United States has just two icebreakers in play in the Arctic. Canada has six. By way of comparison, Russia has more than forty icebreakers with another eight in production.
Once the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf weighs in on the various boundary claims, both Canada and Russia may well end up with a weak position for future boundary negotiations. If Russia loses out, its leaders may raise doubts about the competency of the commission. Still, there is no need for Russia to roar because the commission report is not legally binding. If there is disagreement, it will be left up to Denmark and Russia, and possibly Canada, to negotiate a deal.
As Breum notes, Russian intentions worry politicians like Denmark’s former foreign minister, Per Stig Møller, who was quoted as wondering if “someone would take the law into their own hands outside of Greenland and say ‘We will take this’ and, for example, drill for oil without asking for permission, what could we do?” Not a good question. One does not simply drill for oil in the frontier regions of the Arctic. It requires years of seismic testing, the setting up of rigs and transportation mechanisms before drilling even starts. There’s a lot that could be done—through diplomacy and boycotts—to deter the Russians before a military option is even considered.
If one were to point fingers at countries that haven’t played nice in the Arctic, there are a lot of targets. Look at what happened to the pollock fishery in the international zone of the Bering Sea in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1983, there were thirteen million tons of adult fish in the region. By 1992, after fishing countries like Japan, South Korea, Iceland, Poland, China, and others sent as many as one hundred and fifty trawlers to the area each season, only six percent of that stock remained. In 2011, a two-week survey managed to find just two pollock. As marine scientist Kevin M. Bailey points out in his book Billion-Dollar Fish: The Untold Story of Alaska Pollock (2013), most of the fishing nations were overharvesting and falsifying their fishing records even when it was made clear by scientists that the fishery was about to collapse.
Breum embraces the idea of Denmark (with Greenland) becoming an Arctic superpower if they eventually get control of the massive unexploited oil and gas and minerals reserves believed to be in the region and successfully exploit what is already in their domain.
If the history of the Arctic of Canada tells us anything about the future of Greenland, forging the region’s future on fossil fuel development is not the way to move forward. In Canada, Arctic oil and gas have offered no significant returns, even though the federal government established its own oil firm, Petro-Canada, as a Crown corporation with $1.5 billion in start-up money in 1975. Subsidization has continued unabated at a very high cost. In 2008, a federally funded program, Geo-mapping for Energy and Minerals, was initiated to bring petroleum geologists to the North each year. To date, this program has spent nearly $200 million of taxpayers’ money to help the energy and mining industries find new sources of fossil fuels and minerals in the region. Another $16 million was spent on finding ways to extract gas from methane hydrates in the Mackenzie River delta, a resource that the energy industry has showed little interest in.
In spite of these investments, as well as fire-sale prices for oil and gas leases, virtually none of this Canadian Arctic oil and gas made it to market during the past forty years. The exception was 2.8 million barrels of oil that Panarctic Oils Limited tankered out from Cameron Island between 1985 and 1997. Recent efforts to exploit oil and gas offshore of Greenland, Iceland, and Alaska have amounted to nothing of commercial value. The reason why in most cases is simple: the cost of piping oil or gas, or shipping it out by sea to market, is prohibitively high.
Could that change if Saudi Arabia implodes and North American fracking reserves are exhausted? Perhaps, but the High Arctic is and will remain a dangerous place to extract offshore oil and gas for a long time to come. Even by mid-century, when the Arctic will be increasingly ice-free in its short summer, the ice will continue to thin, break up, and swirl in dangerous ways as it did in 2018 when a Russian polar research vessel was grounded in uncharted waters, forcing the Canadian military and Coast Guard to assist in an expensive rescue.
The cold rush is a race that may have strategic importance for security, but the economic reward that comes at the finish line is questionable at best and fraught with environmental risks to polar bears, belugas, narwhals, and the nascent commercial fishery emerging off the coasts of Greenland and the eastern regions of Arctic Canada.