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

Clearly, politicians in Nuuk regard economic and political independence as the path to a better future for their people. (This, remember, is a country that has already stuck its nose up to the West by leaving a club that everyone wants to join: the EU.) But while they want to see more oil exploration — and hopefully production — they also insist their safety regulations meet the world’s toughest standards, aware that most Greenlanders fear the health issues that could arise from an influx of oil companies.

The politicians’ and public’s views on global warming — another key reason for Greenpeace’s presence in Baffin Bay — are more mixed, however. Global warming might be threatening to harpoon the local hunting way of life, but it will also lessen the hardships of living in a country where burying dead bodies in the frozen ground can be problematic. The melting of the local ice cap, which currently covers 80 percent of the country’s land mass, will raise sea levels in countries such as Bangladesh and the Maldives — but it could open up further economic opportunities in Greenland. In future, Nuuk might act as a lucrative stop-off point for ships traversing the world via the currently iced-up North West Passage, and also make it a center of onshore mineral mining.

“Yes, we are gaining more land, you can say that,” says Stendal. And a spokesman from the Greenland Natural Institute of Resources and Climate Change talks about the possibility of “golden years” ahead, as the temperature warms up.

This is not the only unexpected view that foreign visitors encounter in Nuuk. Greenpeace, which has hero status in most capitals of the world, is fairly unpopular here, even among the young — not so much because the environmental group is opposed to an oil industry that could be good for Greenland’s political self-determination, but because it once opposed seal hunting. Greenpeace now says its campaign was only ever aimed at “unsustainable” activities in Canada, but it admits that Greenland got caught in the slipstream, because any kind of seal hunting was deemed unacceptable by a north European public. As a result, what was a healthy export trade of the distinctive and mottled skins has been stopped in its tracks. Seal skins still cover rows of seats in the otherwise rudimentary airport lounges around this vast country, but only locals will buy a seal-skin waistcoat.

So, while a top team of daredevil environmentalists has led (only temporarily successful) raids on the Cairn rig, others have been making an equally brave attempt to appease vocal critics in Nuuk — without, apparently, much success.

Political correctness as prescribed by the West is not something that hangs heavy in the priorities of the Greenlander. The tourism industry on the island is built around the top end of the market, not least because it costs a pretty penny to fly here, involving a transit in Denmark or Iceland. Once here, visitors are still forced to move around by plane because no towns are connected by road — in fact, there are only two traffic lights on the entire island, a vast country of 2,175,590km2.

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