The future is already here, the science fiction writer William Gibson once wrote; it just isn’t widely distributed. Charles Emmerson in his 2010 book, The Future History of the Arctic, said the future of the Arctic is already here, shaped by the melting of the polar caps, the opening of the Arctic Ocean to navigation and the world’s appetite for the Arctic’s natural resources, especially its oil and gas. I learned a lot from the book about the present and future importance of the Northern world.
Russia is the nation with the largest presence in the Arctic and strongest commitment to developing the Arctic, Emmerson said; the Russians are more oriented toward their Far North than any other people except Greenlanders. This goes back to the old Soviet Union. The first Heroes of the Soviet Union were Arctic aviators and explorers, and many Gulag forced laborers died building the White Sea canal and other Arctic infrastructure.
In present-day Russia, exports of oil and gas are the basis of the economy, and as production in the older oil fields peaks out, the new Arctic fields become critically important.
Gazprom, a company in which the Russian government holds a majority interest, is the world’s largest producer of natural gas and owns the world’s largest natural gas reserves. It has an ambitious plan to develop Arctic gas fields and ship liquified natural gas (LNG) from Arctic ports. Like the old USSR, Russia is determined to press forward regardless of cost, efficiency or the ups and downs of oil and gas prices.
The Russian dilemma is that its energy industry needs the technological expertise of Western companies, but the government is unwilling to accept foreign control of its resources. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil magnate, was reportedly on the verge of selling a large part of his company, Yukos, to ExxonMobil and Chevron when he was arrested in 2003.
The United States and Canada became Arctic powers partly as a result of historical accident. The purchase of Alaska from Russia by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward in 1867 was unpopular. Also in 1867, the British North American Act created the Dominion of Canada, consisting of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the southern parts of present-day Quebec and Ontario. British Columbia was a separate entity and most of the land area of present-day Canada was controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was devoted to trading for furs with the native peoples. Canada’s Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, alarmed by Seward’s ambition to acquire British Columbia and Greenland, negotiated the purchase of the Hudson Bay territories, and persuaded British Columbia to join Canada by promising to build a Canadian Pacific Railroad. Without Seward and MacDonald, history may have taken a different course.
Oil companies in Canada and Alaska are pressing forward, but they are constrained by economic and environmental considerations more than the government-controlled Russian companies.
Leaders of the native peoples of Alaska and northern Canada are caught in the middle. They want economic development, but also want to continue traditional activities such as whale and seal hunting. They distrust the oil companies, but think they can deal with them, and they have no use at all for environmentalists, who, as the native leaders see it, want to deprive them of the benefits of the modern world. Arctic warming threatens this way of life regardless of what the oil, gas and minerals do. Any actions to mitigate global warming will not change the current situation, but may prevent things from getting even worse 20 or 30 years from now.
Emmerson thinks Norway has the most enlightened and balanced approach to development of its Arctic resources. Iceland is attractive to outside companies because of its abundant geothermal and hydroelectric power, and Greenland even more so because of the potential resources under the melting Greenland ice cap. Iceland’s population is slightly over 300,000, less than Monroe County, N.Y., where I live, and Greenland’s is about 56,000, yet many Greenlanders want independence from Denmark. They are in much the same position as the Persian Gulf sheikdoms, tiny communities sitting on enormous resources which they lack the power to defend.
The book is worth reading, and contains a lot more interesting material. One sidelight, and sign of the times: The world’s largest manufacturer of icebreakers is Aker Arctic, a Finnish company, but the only work still done in Finland is design and testing of prototypes. Manufacture has been outsourced to Korea.
[Added 6/5/12] A number of people, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last Saturday, have called on the Arctic nations to make the region a zone of peace and international cooperation. It certainly would be a good place to begin. Without enlightened action, the Arctic seems destined to become a zone of economic rivalry, political conflict and military confrontation.