The Arctic Oil Rush: Alex Shoumatoff

No one should miss Alex Shoumatoff‘s piece on the Arctic Oil Rush
In addition to a wealth of information about the Russian expedition and the attitudes of interested nations towards UNCLOS and other treaties (“(Basically, the U.S. doesn’t ratify anything that cramps its style. It has still not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which Russia has, and Russia doesn’t recognize the human contribution to global warming.”), it is a fascinating account of his travels to the (very) far North, the people he met and the effects of climate change he observed. Who knew there is a flourishing trade in woolly mammoth tusks, or is aware of the existence of the Lena River, “the world’s 10th-longest, and the largest river you’ve never heard of “?

Vanity Fair Green Issue May 2008

There have been many expeditions to the North Pole, but it was Russia’s, last summer, that touched off a furor over who owns the Arctic—and the oil that is becoming more and more accessible as the ice disappears. From the halls of Moscow’s scientific institutes, where global warming is not part of the official story, to Siberia’s permafrost tundra, where reindeer are dying and a powerful greenhouse gas is bubbling from the ooze, the author probes the secrets of Yakut shamans, woolly-mammoth skeletons, and a new Great Game: energy exploration.

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The new accessibility of the Arctic’s deposits is not going to make the effort to curb global warming any easier. Ironically, fossil-fuel emissions are making more fossil fuel available. It’s as if someone on the verge of bankruptcy were suddenly to get a huge inheritance from a distant relative he didn’t even know. Compounding this vicious circle is another feedback loop that is making the top of the planet warm twice as fast as anywhere else: as more bare land and open water are exposed by melting, more solar heat is absorbed instead of being reflected back by white ice and snow. With global warming already stressing the Arctic’s animals and its million or so indigenous people, its newfound wealth could be the coup de grâce.

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… Then he drops something of a bombshell: “But the interest in the oil will soon be decreasing, because of new information that global warming is almost over, and the Arctic ice pack will soon be refreezing.”

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About the estimate that 25 percent of the world’s remaining fossil fuel lies beneath the Arctic Ocean … “There’s a lot of oil in Evenkia—an autonomous republic in western Siberia—that they haven’t even started to drill,” Aleshkovsky tells me. And what about the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, which are supposed to have 65 percent, and in the upper Orinoco of Venezuela, which supposedly has 25 percent? He’s right: the figures don’t add up. In fact, it’s more like 14 percent, if that.

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A geologist who works for an American oil company estimating oil reserves in the North Sea will explain to me a few months later that “oil reserves are a made-up number, and there’s an incentive to make it as large as you can. If the oil price goes up, there are more reserves, because it becomes more economically worthwhile to drill for them. It’s a real black art.”

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The tundra is pitted with circular depressions known as “alases.” Some of them are filled with water from the thawing permafrost; some are empty craters from which the meltwater has drained as it found new exits in the iceless soil. The “thermokarst lakes,” as the water-filled ones are called, are bubbling with methane that had been trapped in the ice.

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One of the scariest parts of the Arctic meltdown, which only a few scientists are talking about, is that some 40,000-year-old Ebola or anthrax-like virus that we have no resistance to could be lurking in the carcass of one of these long-extinct creatures that are being coughed up. That’s one way nature deals with species whose population has gotten out of hand. A 300-year-old Yakut man’s skeleton was recently disgorged by the melting permafrost near Yakutsk; he could have died of smallpox. There was a big epidemic in Yakutia around then, introduced by the Cossacks. So we could see the return of smallpox. In the first half of the 20th century, a hundred thousand reindeer a year died of anthrax on the Yamal Peninsula. The spores lie dormant in the soil and periodically break out.

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