9 April 2012, 14:06

UK cuts Antarctic research as more players compete for Arctic resources

UK cuts Antarctic research as more players compete for Arctic resources

The British polar research community is at a loss about its own future after it became known that the government plans massive cuts, more than 25 per cent, to the budget of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The cuts are ordered as a means to reduce the UK's national deficit.

The British polar research community is at a loss about its own future after it became known that the government plans massive cuts, more than 25 per cent, to the budget of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The cuts are ordered as a means to reduce the UK's national deficit. In the exclusive story, British newspaper The Independent on Sunday said the government was seeking a Ј13m cut from an overall budget of Ј48m.

BAS is the leading UK polar research body which actually started as a purely military establishment during the Second World War as part of Operation Tabarin.  The purpose was to deter enemy ships and to strengthen Britain's claim to the Falkland Islands.  But as years went by it grew into one of the world’s most respected polar research institutions.  It was three of BAS scientists, who discovered the "ozone hole" in the Antarctic. BAS research encompasses geology, climate change, marine science, biodiversity as well as monitoring natural hazards such as sea-level rises. Scientists at BAS Headquarters in Cambridge say that it is ever more shameful, because it comes during the centenary of the death of Captain Robert Scott of the Antarctic in 1912, during his ill-fated voyage to the South Pole.

On the North cap of the globe the situation is completely opposite. As Reuters noted last weekend, “this summer will see more human activity in the Arctic than ever before, with oil giant Shell engaged in major exploration and an expected further rise in fishing, tourism and regional shipping”. Here the scientific and geological research is multiplying almost every month.  The Arctic is turning, and alarmingly quickly as environmentalists say, into a hot spot for oil and gas exploration while spurring an international race to stake claims on the seafloor.   

Greenland's Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum has already submitted tenders for exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea.  The world's largest oil companies with production experience in high latitudes, American Exxon Mobil and Chevron, afore mentioned Anglo-Dutch Shell and Norway's Statoil all have leases for drilling. This frenetic activity of the oil companies worries environmentalist. A week ago Shell has overcome the last legal obstacle for drilling in the Arctic Ocean, although its record of oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico brings little consolation.

Expectations are high that the British PM will address the issues of environment protection, climate change and global warming, including those related to Arctic, in his key-note speech at Clean Energy Ministerial in London on April, 26. The then opposition leader, David Cameron pledged to form and lead “the greenest government ever” and hugged a husky in Norway back in 2006 to prove this.

With huge oil and gas resources within sight, Greenland's government could soon become the biggest enemy of Greenpeace and other environmental groups, who oppose Arctic drilling.

The planet's largest island has a population of 57,000 who derive their livelihood from fishing and $600 million in annual subsidies from Denmark, which is 55% of the island's budget (0.75% of Denmark's budget). There is no love lost between Greenlanders and Denmark, and the island has been working for independence for the past 30 years. Greenlanders hope oil could yield sufficient revenue to finally liberate them from the “colonial past”, enable them to gain independence from Denmark and live a comfortable life. Their quite understandable dream is to become the Arctic Kuwait. The first oil and gas deposits were actually discovered here by the Scottish based oil exploration company Cairn Energy. 

A couple of years ago, the US Geological Survey (USGS) completed a massive two-year research into the Arctic's mineral resources. The project also involved Russian, Canadian, Danish, Greenlandic and Norwegian scientists.

According to the USGS, there is a 95% probability that there could be at least 90 billion barrels of oil - up to 25 percent of the world's undiscovered reserves - and 50 trillion cubic meters (1,669 trillion cubic feet) of gas in the wider Arctic region.  Oil is mostly to be found off Greenland and Alaska, while natural gas lies near or in Russia's Arctic region. The study included only reserves that could be tapped using existing techniques. Experimental or unconventional prospects such as oil shale, gas hydrates and coal-bed methane were not included in the assessment.

More than half of the undiscovered oil resources are estimated to occur in just three geologic provinces: Arctic Alaska (30 billion barrels), the Amerasia Basin (9.7 billion barrels) and the East Greenland Rift Basins (8.9 billion barrels). More than 70 per cent of the undiscovered natural gas is likely to be in three provinces: the West Siberian Basin, the East Barents Basins (all in Russia) and Arctic Alaska.

The 90 billion barrels of oil expected to be in the Arctic in total are more than all the known reserves of Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Mexico combined, and could meet current world oil demand of 86.4 million barrels a day for almost three years.  

Environmentalists are above all worried that offshore drilling runs the risk of polluting the world's last untouched expanse, the Arctic, especially after BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, which leaked nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean.

A similar disaster in the Arctic would have much more destructive consequences because hydrocarbons do not disintegrate in cold water and take a very long time to evaporate in freezing temperatures. This means that possible spills would sink to the seabed - polluting the ocean for years to come.

It is amazing to see how many countries are actually lining up in front of the Arctic gateway. About five years ago the main regional organization here was the Arctic Council, composed of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Now the Council is larger than the Arctic, because the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, China, Italy and South Korea have received observer status within it.

Beijing is shifting its gaze in the direction of the Arctic and has started to convert its theoretical Arctic research programs into applied research. China's completely modernized Soviet-era Ukrainian-built Xue Long or Snow Dragon icebreaker, the largest conventional icebreaker in the world, currently plies Arctic waters. Sea routes in northern Canada and Russia are now open for navigation longer than usual due to global warming. Year-round navigation along these routes would reduce the distance between China and Germany, China and the U.S. East Coast by 6,000-7,000 km in either direction.

Russia claims to own the North Pole and the claim are based on the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea ridge extending north from Siberia. But since the ridge extends all the way to North America, the Danes and the Canadians might also assert the same claim. In 2007, to much media fanfare and annoyance of other Arctic countries, the Russians planted a flag on the seabed some 2.5 miles beneath the ice at the North Pole, and dispatched a nuclear-powered icebreaker to map a subsea link between the Pole and Siberia.

The Arctic waters and shelf are governed by theUnited Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) also called the Law of the Sea treaty of 1982 – the maritime constitution of the world.

Under a 1982 treaty—not yet ratified by the United States—the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf rules on claims for extended territorial waters.

Each country must submit its claims to the commission within ten years of signing the treaty, which is 2013 for Canada and 2014 for Denmark.
Russia asserted its claim to a 1.2-million-square-kilometer (460,000-square-mile) zone in 2001.

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