A new study adds to growing evidence that the current warming cycle may hold potential benefits to mankind. According to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey, earlier estimates which placed untapped Arctic oil reserves at as much as 90 billion barrels actually fell short -- the Arctic may in fact hold as many as 160 billion barrels of oil. The new discovery amounts to over 35 years in US foreign oil imports or 5 years’ worth of global oil consumption. Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States, all of which border the Arctic Circle are racing to compete for the untapped resource.
The oil reserves could fetch a price of $10.6 trillion dollars at current oil prices. Most of the reserves are in shallow waters -- less than 500 meters (about 1/3rd of a mile) -- making extraction relatively easy. Geologist Donald Gautier comments, "It would not mean that there would be any kind of a significant shift in global oil balance. But this is especially significant for the Arctic nations."
Oil companies are already racing to pinpoint deposits and begin to tap this bountiful resource. Exxon Mobil and several others have staked claims and began drilling in the Mackenzie Delta, the Barents Sea, the Sverdrup Basin, and offshore Alaska. According to Alan Jeffers, a spokesperson for Exxon Mobil, "It makes sense to diversify sources of oil and gas, given that the U.S. is one of the biggest consumers of oil and gas."
As rich as the Arctic may be in oil, it may hold even more natural gas. While the geologists estimate 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil lies in the region, they also estimate that the region holds 30 percent of the planet's undiscovered natural gas reserves. Natural gas harvested in the region could be used for a variety of purposes including home heating and power generation.
The discoveries are part of an ongoing USGS study CARA -- Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal. The study is the first of its kind as researchers are using advanced geological analysis and probability modeling to estimate the reserves held in the Arctic shelves. While probabilistic models come with a degree of uncertainty, this multidiscipline approach is yielding exciting results and has already led to the discovery of several major deposits.
Despite the potential gains to economic and national security gains that could come from tapping this resource, environmentalists are seeking to block oil companies from drilling in the region, complaining it will release arsenic, mercury and lead into the ocean waters. All of these compounds naturally occur in low quantities in sea water. Activist Lisa Speer, Director of the International Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a CNN.com interview adds, "We need uniform, mandatory standards governing offshore oil and gas activity in the Arctic because activity in one country has the potential to affect the environment of the Arctic far beyond the country of origin."