Sheila McNulty Don’t forget Arctic when contemplating oil resources

Those who try to estimate how much the world has left need not only think about new technological advances that have enabled oil companies to extract fuel from shale rocks, 10,000 feet under the ocean and in Canada’s oil sands. They also must remember the Arctic.

It is an area that remains largely unexplored because of the difficult conditions there.

Yet American and Canadian scientists are sailing into the Arctic this summer to map the seafloor. Their goal is to help define the outer limits of the continental shelf, as each country can exercise sovereign rights over their extended continental shelf’s natural resources, including control over minerals, petroleum and sedentary organisms, such as claims, crabs and coral.

The extended continental shelf, according to the US Geological Survey, is that part of a country’s continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from shore. Pictures of the area show the difficulty of the task. Yet the countries are working together from August 7 through September 16, using two icebreakers.

The US team is focused on collecting data primarily on seafloor depths and morphology.  The Canadian team is searching for information primarily on the thickness and characteristics of sub-bottom sediments.

Deborah Hutchinson, who will be aboard the Canadian ship as a US liaison, explained the significance:

The Arctic Ocean is an area of great scientific interest, possible economic development and potential resource conservation. Research in these remote areas of the Arctic Ocean is expensive, logistically difficult and sometimes dangerous.

This is the second year the countries have collaborated to gather data in the Arctic. And they are planning another such mission next year.

As the world’s energy demand continues to rise, wells mature and formations are exploited, the Arctic will increasingly become the new frontier. US government scientists said last year, in the first assessment of the region, that the Arctic holds as many as 90bn barrels of undiscovered oil and has as much undiscovered gas as all the reserves known to exist in Russia.

But, again, as technology develops, more resources are likely to be found under the ice, just as they have been in recent years with new technology under the ground and the sea. The estimates of what the Arctic holds with current technology are already enormous.

Related links:

Arctic holds 90bn barrels of oil and gas (FT, June 2008)