Oil and Gas Exploitation in the Arctic

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Written for Coursera (MOOC) Class ‘Ocean Solutions‘ by University of Western Australia (June 2014)

Ownership of the Arctic region has been disputed over the past century.  Discovery of Oil and Gas resources in the Arctic and improved accessibility in recent years has heightened the stakes.

  • The Arctic constitutes 5% of the earth’s surface area [1]
  • It is estimated that the Arctic Region holds the largest virgin oil and gas fields in the world [2].
  • Global warming and retreating ice is making the region more accessible [2].
  • Five countries border the region: Russia, USA, Canada, Norway and Denmark (Greenland).
  • United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UCLOS) states that each country has rights to a 200 nautical mile (370 km) area beyond the coast in the ‘Exclusive Economic Zones’
  • Most of the Arctic lies in International waters.

MAP_Arctic Oil

The US Geological Survey published estimates of Arctic Oil and Gas inventories in 2008 [4].

  • 90 billion barrels of oil.
  • 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
  • 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.
  • 84 percent of resources in offshore areas.

Ownership of the oceans and ocean floor is governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UCLOS) [5].

This international law sets out a 200 mile ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’, extending from the coastline.  Within this area of sea, a nation has rights for exploiting and managing all materials (living and non-living) in the water and below the sea bed [6].

A sub-group of UNCLOS contains the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), which allows for a nation to extend sovereignty beyond the limits of the EEZ if the CLCS verifies that a country’s continental shelf extends further [3].

In order that a claim to extend the EEZ can be made, a country must ratify UCLOS.  As of 2014, all Arctic nations have ratified UCLOS except USA.

Currently, there is no clear ownership of the Arctic beyond the EEZ limits of bordering nations.  The Arctic Council (established 1996) is an exclusive body which seeks to resolve issues between member states, and commissioning joint research in the Arctic environment.

There is great interest in exploiting the fossil fuel mineral wealth in the Arctic, and ownership of the mineral rights would lead to lucrative deals.

There are grave concerns for the Arctic environment, as oil pollution from accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, would be devastating to the pristine Arctic [7].

Cleaning-up spills in the Arctic would be much more difficult, due to the icy water and remoteness from response facilities [8].

I believe that no exploitation of Oil and Gas in the Arctic, beyond currently recognised EEZs should be allowed, until a robust framework for environmental protection and sharing of resources is agreed.

The stewardship of the international waters of the Arctic should be the responsibility of the United Nations (UCLOS) with a leading role for the Arctic Council.


[1] ‘The New North’, Nature vol 478, 13 October 2011

[2] ‘Redrawing the Arctic Map’, Nature vol 478, 12 Oct 2011

[3] ‘Evolution of Arctic Territorial Claims and Agreements: A Timeline (1903-Present)’, Stimson

[4] USGS, ‘Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle

[5] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UCLOS),

[6] Ocean Solutions: Lecture Materials, 9.0 Governance 9.2.1 Current International Law

[7] The Guardian, ‘Deepwater Horizon and the Gulf oil spill – the key questions answered’, 20 April 2011

[8] WWF Global, ‘Arctic Oil & Gas

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