- - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

DUBLIN — Environmentalists are toiling to stop a modern-day gold rush at the top of the world, as the U.S. and four other countries scramble to stake claims to potentially vast oil riches under the frozen waters of the Arctic Ocean.

Environmental activists such as Greenpeace are opposed to any resource extraction in the region.

“Greenpeace has been protesting on all Arctic ice drillings since 2000,” said Truls Gulowsen, program director of Greenpeace Nordic. “We believe it’s high time to put some bars on the industry’s push into the area. It’s too vulnerable, and there is no way to clean an oil spill out of ice.”

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that the Arctic region contains 90 billion barrels of oil, representing about 13 percent of the undiscovered petroleum in the world. The region could yield about $8.3 trillion in oil revenue at today’s prices.

Some oil experts say the oil fields off the Arctic coasts of the United States, Canada, Norway, Russia and Greenland, which is part of Denmark, could be more than double the USGS estimate.

Greenpeace activists secure an arctic survival pod on the underside of the Leiv Eiriksson oil rig off Greenland's coast on Sunday, May 29, 2011, in an attempt to stop a Scottish oil company from starting deepwater drilling in the arctic waters. (AP Photo/Greenpeace, Steve Morgan)
Greenpeace activists secure an arctic survival pod on the underside of the ... more >

Extracting the Arctic’s petroleum requires drilling operations unlike those in the Gulf of Mexico, where nearly 5 million barrels of oil spilled during three months in 2010 after an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig. It was the biggest oil spill in the history of the industry, and its long-term environmental damage is still being assessed.

“We’re in a global situation where we’ve found more oil and coal than we can afford to burn from a climate point of view, so unconventional sources [of oil] need to be the first to stay in the ground. At the same time, the Arctic is supervulnerable,” Greenpeace’s Mr. Gulowsen said.

Greenpeace recently lost a legal battle with the Scottish oil-exportation company Cairn Energy. On June 10, a court in the Netherlands issued an injunction barring the environmental group from obstructing drilling operations off the coast of Greenland. The group was fined more than $71,000.

‘Huge challenges remain’

According to Mr. Gulowsen, the growing interest in Arctic oil reserves results from oil becoming scarcer in traditional source regions such as the Middle East.

“Areas that were completely covered with ice are becoming more and more accessible, and, from the oil companies’ point of view, they’re desperate for more resources,” he said.

Exploration continues regardless of campaigners’ concerns about environmental degradation.

“This space in the Arctic could end up with 200 billion barrels — that’s [more] than Iraq or Iran [have],” said David Horgan, managing director of Petrel Resources, a British-Irish oil exploration company with interests worldwide including in Iraq. “Before now, it wasn’t a live issue because it was so expensive to drill.”

He said drilling is only possible when the Arctic ice cap thaws in the summer for about two or three months, and it could cost $200 million to sink one well. That expense is about twice the cost of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Huge challenges remain: the sea and the environment, political issues, costs and technical issues,” he added. “The reality is that when drilling in deep water, … such as the well in the Gulf of Mexico, you are pushing boundaries of science.”

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