Tue, Sep 14, 2010 - Page 16 News List

The rush for Arctic oil

Greenland is a land apart — where many people welcome global warming, dislike Greenpeace, and hope the arrival of Big Oil will transform their lives. But at what price to this pristine wilderness?

By Terry Macalister  /  THE GUARDIAN, LONDON

The fight was over almost before it began. A short, middle-aged woman had smashed her fist into the face of another female drinker, and within seconds was dragged to the door by a hulking bouncer and flung on to the streets of Nuuk. It was midnight on a Tuesday but the atmosphere in the Kristinemut bar resembled a hard-core weekend: raucous band, chaotic dancing, and more than a handful of revelers (of all ages) best described as “blotto.”

Not everyone in the bar may have realized it, but these residents of Greenland’s capital had good reason to celebrate. That morning, local television reported that traces of gas had been discovered by the British exploration company Cairn Energy in Baffin Bay a few hundred kilometers to the northwest. If these first hydrocarbon traces prove an accurate indicator of major reserves below the Arctic seabed, they may in time produce untold wealth for Greenland’s population — financially dependent on Denmark — of 56,000 Inuit and other ethnic groups, clinging to existence 730km from the North Pole in one of the world’s harshest terrains.

The bulk of this huge land is a vast — and breathtakingly beautiful — white desert. A layer of ice, 3km thick, covers 80 percent of the country for 12 months of the year. Even along the coastline, where the population is huddled, the black rock of the precipitous mountains and brown vegetation are only visible during the summer months. With virtually no trees and a winter temperature that can sink as low as minus 70ºC, the name Greenland is misleading — deliberately so, in fact. It was an early “marketing tool” used by Erik the Red in 982, as he tried to lure fellow Vikings from warmer climes to settle here, having failed to sell a similar message about Iceland.

These days the terrain is even bleaker (where once pigs and cattle roamed in the south of the country, now there are polar bears, seals and walruses), but this frozen and largely unexplored land will not deter today’s prospectors, tempted by the possibility of an Arctic “oil rush.” The kind of oil and gas reserves believed to reside in the wider Arctic region could be worth as much as US$7 trillion, which is why all the big oil companies are queuing up to woo the Greenland government into granting them exploration licenses.

Ever since the days of John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the oil industry has thrived on breaking open new energy frontiers — and there is no

greater challenge than the Arctic, particularly in the wake of BP’s Gulf of Mexico nightmare.

Environmentalists, of course, regard the exploitation of one of the last remaining areas of pristine wilderness on the planet with horror, and up in Baffin Bay, there has been an ongoing physical confrontation between a Greenpeace ship, Esperanza, and the Danish navy as it defends the Cairn Energy rig from marauding protesters. The setting could not be more symbolic: around them, glaciers and icebergs melt as a direct result of global warming, a phenomenon that will only be exacerbated should the Arctic be allowed to give up its oil and gas reserves.

Inside the Kristinemut bar, Nive Nielsen, a local singer with a growing international reputation, is decidedly sober about the implications of any major oil find in Greenland. “I guess what I would like to see is the government tread very carefully. I am worried they are rushing ahead too quickly [with oil licensing],” she says. “Most people here — possibly 80 percent — think this drilling can only be good for Greenland, but we have already seen the traditional ways of doing things being eroded, and people herded into [modern town-housing] blocks.”

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