The northern frontier may soon be a contested space for energy exploration and exploitation.

Energy Blog: The Race for Arctic Resources

Oct 25, 2021

by Michael E. Webber

There was a time when the Arctic was the site of intense exploration. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European governments were keen on finding a water route to Asia that didn’t involve sailing around southern tips of Africa or South America, and so expeditions were sent looking for the proposed Northwest Passage north of Canada.
When that route (or routes, actually) was finally discovered, it was too icebound for most of the year to be of much use, and technological advances such as transcontinental railroads and the Panama Canal removed a lot of the appeal. Even in an era with the Panama Canal, however, the Northwest Passage is still alluring as some cargo ships are too heavy for the shallow canal and a shorter route promises better profits and tighter management of just-in-time supply chains.
Beyond its geopolitical role as the site of a centuries-long quest, the Arctic has a second and separate parallel trend in the energy sector.

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The global long-term trend of modern energy is to start onshore then move offshore. Oil and gas production started onshore, but ultimately moved offshore decades later because of large, economic reservoirs in places such as the Gulf of Mexico. Modern wind farms were first built on land, but in the last decade have gained traction offshore because of property limitations onshore, proximity to coastal urban centers, and the greater abundance of valuable wind resources in places like the North Sea. Recently, entrepreneurs have looked at how to take other energy technologies, such as solar, bioenergy, and even carbon sequestration, and move them offshore so that they don’t occupy land that is needed for agriculture or housing.
The Arctic has a robust energy sector—everyone knows about the oil that has come down from Alaska’s North Slope for the past 40 years, but the Arctic portion of the vast West Siberian basin contains one of Russia’s largest gas fields. The United States Geological Survey and other groups have looked at the oil and gas resources in the Arctic offshore regions and see a potential bonanza, one that up to now has been difficult to exploit because of the way shifting pack ice can grind up ships and stationary infrastructure. Much like the Northwest Passage, what is theoretically possible has not been practical.

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Due to actions taken far away from the Arctic, the conditions in the Arctic are changing to make the area more, for the want of a better word, exploitable. The main pollutant responsible for climate change – CO2 emitted into the atmosphere from combustion of fossil fuels – has a long, stable life and thus mixes almost evenly globally in the atmosphere. In particular, the polar regions experience warming much faster than the mid-latitudes.
In fact, climate-change induced warming is creating feedbacks that exacerbate climate change. As just one recent example, an article in the New York Times on July 17, 2021, highlighted how the wildfires that have ravaged Siberia in several recent years may release more CO2 and kill trees that help take the CO2 out of the atmosphere, all of which will lead to more wildfires.
As such, the Arctic is on the frontlines of climate change’s impacts. This manifestation will impinge on the Arctic ecosystem while ironically making it easier to produce hydrocarbons in remote northern waters and easier to consume hydrocarbons for trans-Arctic shipping.
These three separate trends of the attraction of polar waters for resources and shipping, movement by the energy industry offshore, and global climate change come together to make Arctic energy security a relevant issue for neighboring nations and global leaders to address.

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I should add that getting engineers involved in the Arctic can be beneficial. The Arctic is a harsh unforgiving testbed, with remote, rugged weather conditions, salt water, and natural and man-made disasters that can affect reliability of modernity’s trappings. If we can make our infrastructure work there, we can make it work anywhere. Scientific advances on climate, weather forecasting, spatial analysis tools, network modeling, communications, microgrids, and energy storage can all be applied to more temperate locations to improve the resilience and performance of our energy, water, and telecommunications infrastructure. 
History is full of examples of how exploring and exploiting inhospitable places—from the open ocean to outer space—have led to concrete gains in living standards back home. Following history’s example and investing in the Arctic Frontier will help the United States maintain its global leadership position while yielding many ancillary economic, environmental, and security benefits for society as a whole.
Michael E. Webber is the Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin and was Chief Science and Technology Officer at ENGIE, a global energy & infrastructure services firm from 2018—2021. His documentary television series, Power Trip: The Story of Energy, is available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and local PBS stations.

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