The Key to Future Wealth and Power: Arctic Exploration

Beneath the frozen tundra of the Arctic, there lies a vast treasure of untapped, undiscovered natural resources which have attracted human attention for dozens of years. Throughout history, man has been unsuccessful in extracting the oil and gas reserves underneath the polar ice caps because of the technological challenges associated with drilling and mining in the harsh climate of the Arctic. However, with the recent thawing of the ice in the region as global temperatures slowly rise, the potential for success in this arena has increased significantly and has attracted the attention of the world’s major superpowers. So just how big are the oil and gas reserves in the Arctic?

Arctic Reserves

Well, it is estimated that there are 90 Billion Barrels of crude oil reserves and approximately 1.7 Trillion cubic feet of natural gas resources under the ice. To put these numbers into context, these values represent 5.9% of the world’s known oil reserves and 24.3% of the world’s known gas reserves. It’s estimated that the value of these resources is in the trillions of US Dollars. Moreover, in addition to oil and gas reserves, there’s also expected to be a vast array of minerals which could be acquired via mining processes. Minerals such as zinc, lead, gold, diamond, and platinum are just a few of the minerals that could be unlocked for those parties willing to deal with the harsh climate and capable of funding the activities necessary to extract them.

China and Russia vs. The West

Of the world’s major superpowers, China has shown greatest ambition for seizing the opportunity presented in the Arctic to further expand its sphere of influence. Chinese crews have already begun drilling activities off the Kara Sea’s northern coast, and have sent cargo ships through a new passage dubbed the Polar Silk Road. A recent launch of China’s second icebreaker (Snow Dragon 2), a ship designed to clear passage by breaking ice in its path, further supports the idea that China is seeking to win the race in the Arctic. A recent annual Pentagon report indicated that China’s ambition for presence in the region is not just tied to the economic benefit of being the region, but also for military/naval benefit to deploy nuclear submarines.

As if this wasn’t enough to cause concern, China’s most egregious signal in its pursuit for wealth and power has been its partnership with Russia. Their partnership is believed to have been formed as a way to combat the influence of the West. Agnia Grigas, an energy expert in Washington, succinctly puts it, “China’s need for energy sources and Russia’s economic dependence on fossil fuel exports depends on this.”

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have met with each other many times to discuss investments from Chinese companies into the energy and transport infrastructure of the Russian tundra. By flexing its available wealth, China has also been successful in providing significant financial investments to other Arctic countries such as Iceland, in exchange for access to their natural resources.

American Response

Although it may be easy to ignore the warning signs, China and Russia have made it abundantly clear that they have high aspirations for success and control in the Arctic region. It has been believed for a long time that the Arctic reserves will remain inaccessible to mankind until a major technological breakthrough occurs in the oil and gas industry with respect to the exploration and drilling processes. However, America should not operate under the assumption that this belief is true. With the receding ice in the Arctic region with each passing year, it is becoming more and more feasible to access the natural resources trapped beneath the untouched Artic land with technology that is already available today. Washington should expand its presence in the Artic playing field by supporting and subsidizing American companies in their efforts to succeed in the Far North. Washington should also place a higher emphasis on working with other governments in the region to make deals which will enable future access to those reserves so that when the time is right, America can respond swiftly. If America chooses to ignore these growing risks, then it will risk being left without access and influence in the Arctic region. This could be increasingly problematic in the long run because it could eventually lead to a reduction in America’s influence with our allies and partners in the region, as well as a deferment to China’s and Russia’s policy preferences.

Written by Jignesh Patel.