The World’s multinational corporations face an unrelenting problem. Resource extraction has met Earth’s limits. The great fortunes of history were made by plundering resources, but we have taken the best of everything. With few virgin resources left, modern profit-making schemes turn to stock manipulations, debt swaps, and bets on derivative markets. Such manipulations, however, with no real wealth behind them, lead to inflation, collapse, and bailouts.
In the search for the remnants of nature’s real wealth, the captains of industry scramble for Earth’s remaining stores of minerals, forests, and biomass. This takes us to the ends of the Earth, to the poles, where receding ice opens land and seas for the final act of industrial pillage.
According to the World Resource Institute, some 6.2 billion hectares of forest once covered Earth’s landmass. Human expansion has reduced this by about half, to 3.2 billion hectares. Since we high-grade every resource, taking the biggest and best trees first, only about a quarter of the world’s frontier forests – measured in quality and quantity of standing timber – remains.
Meanwhile, we have dammed some 30,000 rivers, drained aquifers, dried lakes, polluted our water tables, and heated our atmosphere. As a result, each year, deserts grow by 6-million hectares, as forests shrink by 16-million hectares. In agricultural regions, we’ve mined over half the carbon from our soils, and we wash 26-billion tons of top soil into the sea each year along with our toxins, creating ocean dead zones. We have reduced most large commercial fish species by 60-90% and we’ve reduced the marine mammals by 80-90%, and some to extinction.
To fuel this devastation, we’ve drained some 60 trillion gallons of oil from the Earth, the best half of the world’s hydrocarbon store, representing 500-million-years of captured solar energy. We dumped the carbon waste into our atmosphere, heating the planet and turning the oceans acidic. According to Dr. William Rees’ global footprint analysis, human enterprise annually overshoots Earth’s renewable productive capacity by half.
Nevertheless, a billion people remain undernourished, and 10 million starve each year. By depleting Earth’s natural wealth, we foreclose genuinely sustainable options for the world’s poorest people, forcing them into sweatshops and slums.
Any sane person would step back, take stock, and consider how to reduce wasteful consumption, share among the human family, and restore Nature’s bounty. Not the world’s corporate empires. Resource corporations view the receding ice caps as an opportunity for one last orgy of plunder.
Swarming the Arctic
The fundamental resource of industrialism is energy, and the fundamental industrial energy is oil. According to Marin Katusa, Chief Energy Investment Strategist at Casey Research, “a century of oil production has depleted most of the world's easy oil deposits,” which has pushed those companies to seek ultradeep ocean wells, bitumen from Canadian tar sands, and the remnant oil reserves in the Arctic.
This summer, Shell Oil intends to drill five exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas on Alaska's continental shelf. Although the sea bottom in this region is relatively shallow – 50-meters, compared to a thousand meters or more for deepwater wells – drilling rigs in the Arctic must negotiate moving ice floes, Arctic storms, freezing weather, and 10 weeks of darkness.
Shell admits that they would likely abandon a well capping or spill cleanup during poor Arctic weather. Oil moving under ice floes is out of reach, and the US Geological Survey (USGS) warns that “there is no comprehensive method for cleanup of spilled oil in sea ice.” Furthermore, US Coast Guard Admiral Robert Papp admits that Alaska infrastructure to respond to an oil well blowout, does not exist. Canadian regulators conclude that to drill a blowout relief well in the arctic would take three years.
According to the USGS, the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas contains 14-19 billion barrels of recoverable oil. The energy-intensive drilling would require an equivalent energy of 1-2 billion barrels of oil, so the net return might be about 15 billion barrels. At current consumption rates, that equals a 6-month world oil supply. The entire Arctic seabed, at best, may contain 3 years of world oil consumption.
For this, the oil giants appear willing to risk the world’s last pristine marine ecosystems. Arctic waters provide vital habitat for krill, unique fish, commercial cod and pollock, the rare bowhead whale, dolphins, walruses, seals, penguins and other birds. An oil spill would ravage Arctic marine wildlife and devastate local fishing.
War profiteers jump in
Once the oil companies locate, drill, and start producing oil, the next phase requires an extensive network of pipelines. Spills have become routine in oil pipelines from Nigeria to Canada. Furthermore, like Iraq or Afghanistan, any region with oil and pipelines becomes a battleground for political control.
Russian oil company Gazprom has signed a deal with Exxon Mobil Corp to prospect for oil in Russia’s Arctic Kara Sea. The US, China, Russia, Canada, and other nations have already begun military posturing in the Arctic to protect their resource interests.
US cables released by Wikileaks promote a “military presence” in Greenland to protect “American commercial investments” and justify a US military presence due to “the potential of increased military threats in the Arctic.” The alleged threats include Russian submarines planting flags under the North Pole, Russia’s foreign minister proposing a “redistribution of power” and “armed intervention” in the Arctic, and Norway justifying Fighter aircraft purchases to offset Russia’s Arctic intentions. Meanwhile, Chinese diplomat Cui Hongjian insists that the Arctic is a “public area,” and Canada has announced intentions to patrol the Arctic with drones.
Another US cable cited oil and ice-free shipping as “benefits accruing from global warming.” Since 1980, we’ve witnessed a 75% reduction in Arctic sea ice. The polar ice helps balance atmospheric temperature by reflecting solar energy. The dark water left by receding ice absorbs energy, causing Earth to heat faster. Meanwhile, ancient methane – 20-times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas – escapes from melting permafrost, a feedback that increases global warming.
Furthermore, the oil that doesn’t spill into the sea or land spills into the atmosphere. It makes no sense to risk Earth’s last pristine marine ecosystem, and runaway heating, to extend a decaying and destructive industry for a few years. But Shell Oil does not appear interested in preserving ecosystems or future generations. The oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi fields is worth $1-2 trillion dollars of revenue to the oil company. Their motivation is money, not a vision for sustainable human habitation on Earth.
Knowing that their actions will degrade Earth’s ecological stability, Shell has filed a pre-emptive lawsuit against environmental groups in an attempt to prejudice courts to favor Shell's plans before anyone can challenge them.
Resistance and vision
Indigenous nations, scientists, celebrities, Greenpeace, and other environmental groups have proposed a global sanctuary in the Arctic to protect species habitat and local, indigenous fishing, while banning unsustainable industrial fishing and oil drilling.
A similar sanctuary was established in Antarctica 20 years ago, protecting the southern continent from mining and drilling. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) now oversees scientists from 27 countries, performing valuable inter-disciplinary research in the Antarctic. The treaty prohibits military activity, and holds all Antarctic territorial claims in abeyance.
As giant corporations travel to the ends of the Earth for the final plunder of resources, the time has come for humanity to accept Earth’s biological and physical limits, preserve the vestiges of wild nature, arrest global warming, and prepare for a genuinely sustainable and equitable human society. That requires saving the Arctic from plunder.
Links in this essay:
World Resource Institute: http://www.wri.org/
Dr. William Rees, 50% Overshoot: http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/1113
Casey Research: Icy Saga, Oil’s Inevitable Climb: http://www.caseyresearch.com/cdd/icy-saga-emblematic-oil-prices-inevitable-climb
Shell’s Arctic oil exploration, exploratory wells, Greenpeace briefing:http://greenpeace.org.nz/briefing/Shell_and_oil_exploration_off_Alaska.pdf
Canadian regulators, 3 years to drill Arctic relief well:http://www.nathancullen.com/news/article_RE/3_years_to_cap_an_arctic_oil_spill_officials_say/
Wikileaks reaveals Arctic war plans: http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/wikileaks-reveals-arctic-could-be-new-cold-war-20110512