Arctic Dreaming? History, Resource Development, and the Future of the Arctic Meltdown

By John Sandlos

We have all heard the news stories: a warming climate is destined to melt huge sections of the multi-year polar sea ice, potentially unlocking the last great untapped reservoirs of oil and natural gas in the world. The media has been preoccupied with this prediction, in part because of the controversy surrounding the Prirazlomnaya oil platform and Russia’s subsequent arrest and imprisonment of the 30 Greenpeace “Arctic Sunrise” activists on charges of piracy (now reduced to hooliganism), some of whom attempted to scale the giant rig to protest the safety and environmental concerns surrounding Arctic drilling. Environmental risks associated with the Prirazlomnaya platform stem in part from specific worries about the safety of the rig. Any resulting oil spill has catastrophic potential as the oil becomes locked under the ice for long periods of time in a cold ocean environment where hydrocarbons will biodegrade only very slowly. The platform is also symbolically important as the first to drill in the icy waters above the Arctic Circle, the vanguard of what environmentalists and many in the media have described as the “madness” of designating the melting pack ice as an opportunity for a resource boom; one that will only further exacerbate the problem of climate change in this most delicate of regions. The Prirazlomnaya platform has, in many ways, become a global flashpoint for competing visions of the Arctic future in the face of rapid environmental change. Will the oil boom bring an Arctic utopia where the economic benefits of oil development produce spinoff industries and spread wealth through the region, or will the exploitation of the potentially vast Arctic oil and gas deposits accelerate the warming process that threatens to severely and rapidly disrupt environmental conditions in the region?

Free The Arctic 30 - Protest in Madrid, 5 October 2013. Photo: fotografar via Flickr.
Free The Arctic 30 – Protest in Madrid, 5 October 2013. Photo: fotografar via Flickr.

What can the study of Arctic history tell us about this imagined Arctic future? The Rachel Carson Center recently organized a workshop where a small group of scholars from several circumpolar nations discussed their work on the history of extractive industries in the Arctic. In the plenary panel, three scholars, Dag Avango (Royal Institute, Sweden), Gavin Bridge (Durham Universty, UK), and myself asked what history could teach us about an Arctic future based on hydrocarbon development. Avango began with a description of Assessing Artic Futures, a project that frames contemporary Arctic dreams within historical imaginings of Arctic utopias based on industrial development. Using coal development on Spitsbergen as an example, Avango highlighted the competing national claims, the networks of actors, and the socioeconomic forces that produced the coal regime on the island, challenging the idea that development is inevitable wherever resources are located. My own talk traced previous imagined utopias in the Canadian Arctic, from Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s “Polar Mediterranean” based on industrial development and wildlife ranching to the advance of mining projects to the Arctic Islands in the 1970s. I then turned to contemporary visions of the Arctic future, particularly the Obama Administration’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region and the Canadian government’s Northern Strategy, critiquing the simple assertion that Inuit social and economic development will flow directly from massive offshore oil developments, given the failed promises of previous Arctic dreaming. Gavin Bridge took a more global perspective on the development of resource frontiers, suggesting that the “climate determinism” (i.e., if you melt it they will come) associated with Arctic oil belies the fact that Arctic resource development has been of longstanding yet episodic interest among circumpolar states, linked to unstable flows of capital from industrial centers and the waxing and waning of various national development projects. The development of Arctic oil is not inevitable, as Bridge suggests, but will proceed only if social, political, and economic conditions—not to mention the as yet under-determined quality of the resource—align in such a way to make the extraction of value from nature possible in such a remote region.

Already the massive expansion of shale oil and gas development in the US mid-west makes the prospects for an Arctic oil boom doubtful in the near term; inherent environmental challenges such as seasonal darkness and ice, a liability chill in some national spheres over who would pay for a catastrophic spill, and the age-old problem of transporting Arctic resources to markets suggest that the boom might be more of a sputter even over the long term. And all of this leaves out the profound ethical paradox (scrupulously avoided by the Canadian and US Arctic strategy documents) mentioned above: positioning oil development as the social and economic salvation of the region when it may also contribute to its environmental doom through the spiraling ecological impacts of climate change. These ethical and economic concerns may also merge in some ways: greater climate change due to accelerated offshore oil exploitation may actually limit access to land-based resource opportunities (ranging from hunting to mining) as melting permafrost turns tundra to muskeg and potentially limits access to larger areas of the Arctic landscape. As with previous boosterism surrounding Arctic resource development, the inherent challenges of distance, environment, conflict with other resource users, and unstable capital flows threaten to thwart today’s imagined Arctic future. If history can tell us anything, the Arctic future is far from settled, and an oil boom will depend on the mobilization of forces much more complicated than simply melting ice.

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