The US Geological Survey is lining up a project with the firms BP and Statoil to find oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean under the auspices of a flagship scientific initiative intended to tackle global warming.
But the head of the British Antarctic Survey, which coordinates UK activity at the poles, has said he is "very uncomfortable" with the idea and has questioned its ethical and scientific justification.
Tackling climate change and working out how it will affect the Arctic and Antarctic is a central theme of International Polar Year (IPY) -- a high-profile project to start next spring that involves thousands of scientists from 60 countries.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and last September saw the lowest extent of sea ice cover for more than a century. Scientists say the temperature there could rise by a further 4oC to 7oC by 2100, and the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer by 2060.
Documents on the IPY Web site show that BP and Statoil, a Norwegian company, are "significant consortium members" on a USGS proposal to assess "energy resources in the circumarctic area including oil, gas, coalbed methane and methane hydrates." Geologists estimate that a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie under the Arctic, and analysts have predicted a 21st-century goldrush to tap them as the Arctic Ocean's ice cover retreats.
Chris Rapley, the director of the British Antarctic Survey, said: "I would be very uncomfortable with a project that simply was out to log the hydrocarbon reserves of the Arctic as a geological activity."
"I don't think that fits very comfortably within either the scientific guidelines or the ethical underpinning of the IPY," he said.
Experts have warned the only realistic way to prevent dangerous climate change is to curb carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.
The USGS proposal has been approved by scientists organizing the IPY, but Rapley plans to question its suitability at a committee meeting this week in Cambridge.