Academic journal article Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

Oil and Sustainability in the Arctic Circle

Academic journal article Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

Oil and Sustainability in the Arctic Circle

Article excerpt

Remaining one of the last untouched environments on Earth, the Arctic Circle is home to a vast number of natural resources and wildlife. Yet as a result of climate change, the unique environment of the Arctic is rapidly shifting, uncovering more and more of the continental shelf as the ice sheets melt away. (1) This melting allows for greater access to the Arctic land beneath, and the resources it provides, that was unavailable before.

One of the largest untapped natural resources of the Arctic is oil. It is estimated that the Arctic Circle, while covering only six percent of the Earth's surface, holds approximately twenty-two percent of the Earth's oil and natural gas reserves. (2) As the ice sheet covering the Arctic begins to melt, more of the continental shelf is exposed and the possibility of exploiting this resource becomes a feasible possibility. (3)

This paper sets out to discuss the issues surrounding Arctic oil, the interests of the stakeholders involved, and sustainability challenges of the project. Part I provides a brief background of the Arctic Circle and the presence of unexplored oil reserves. Part II explores the perspectives of the different stakeholders involved in Arctic oil exploration, including the eight Arctic states and different various non-governmental organizations ("NGOs"). Part III discusses the current international agreements governing the Arctic Circle, focusing on the work of the Arctic Council. Part IV discusses sustainability issues surrounding Arctic oil drilling and the preservation of the Arctic environment. Part V provides an analysis of the international framework surrounding Arctic oil exploration, taking into account the different stakeholder opinions, sustainability issues, and the current international framework governing this area. Finally, Part VI draws conclusions on this issue.


Geographically, the Arctic is defined as the region located north of the Arctic Circle. (4) This area is unique in that sunlight is present or absent for twenty-four continuous hours on the summer and winter solstices. (5) The Arctic contains the land area of eight states: Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States. (6) However, only the Russian Federation, Norway, the United States, Canada, and Demark through their jurisdiction over Greenland, have a territorial right to the Arctic. The other two states do not border the Arctic Ocean. (7)

The most striking feature of the Arctic is the sea ice, which covers approximately eight million square kilometers during the winter months and approximately twice that area during the spring and summer months. (8) The ice cover extends to most of the continental shelves during a majority of the year. (9)

The Arctic is home to hundreds of plant species that have adapted to live in the harsh tundra environment. (10) Many animal species have adapted to live in the tundra conditions as well, including polar bears, artic foxes, and caribou. (11) These species either hibernate during the winter months and escape the most severe weather conditions of the north or migrate further south until the spring months. (12) In addition, approximately four million people call the Arctic Circle their home. (13) Most of these people live in a few post-Soviet cities, while the rest are scattered about living in tiny coastal communities. (14)

The Arctic is host to a large number of untapped oil reserves. The United States Geological Survey ("USGS") estimates that the oil resources of the Arctic Circle are equal to approximately (412) billion barrels of oil. (15) Arctic oil and natural gas discoveries began in Russia in 1962 at the Tazovskoye Field, and then in the United States in 1967 at the Alaskan Prudhoe Bay Field. (16) Since then, sixty-one large oil and natural gas fields have been discovered in Russia, Alaska, Canada, and Norway. …

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