New Wikileaks Revelations Shed Light on Arctic Oil ‘Carve-Up’

Greenpeace warns growing military tension poses threat to peace

Feature story - May 13, 2011
New revelations by the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks show how the scramble for resources in the Arctic is sparking military tension in the region – with NATO sources worried about the potential for armed conflict between the alliance and Russia.

Action on the Leiv Eiriksson Oil Rig

Greenpeace activists take direct action to protect the pristine Arctic environment from oil exploration by stopping the drilling rig Leiv Eiriksson from departing Turkish waters for Baffin Bay, Greenland. The rig is due to begin deep water oil exploration for wildcat oil company Cairn Energy, which is leading the new Arctic oil rush. An activist display a banner from an inflatable reading "Choose clean energy now". © Markel Redondo / Greenpeace

New revelations by the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks show how the scramble for resources in the Arctic is sparking military tension in the region – with NATO sources worried about the potential for armed conflict between the alliance and Russia.

The release of previously unpublished US embassy cables also shows the extent to which Russia is maneuvering to claim ownership over huge swathes of the Arctic, with one senior Moscow source revealing that a Russian explorer’s famous submarine expedition to plant a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole was ordered by Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

One cable details the lengths to which the U.S. is going to carve out a strong position in Greenland, and the concerns Washington has over Chinese maneuvering on the Danish autonomous island. The dispatch states: “Our intensified outreach to the Greenlanders will encourage them to resist any false choice between the United States and Europe. It will also strengthen our relationship with Greenland vis-a-vis the Chinese, who have shown increasing interest in Greenland's natural resource.”

Tensions within NATO are also exposed, as Canadian leaders privately express disquiet over the alliance’s mooted plans to project military force in the Arctic in the face of perceived Russian aggression. Recently re-elected Canadian PM Stephen Harper is quoted by diplomats as saying that a NATO presence in the region would give non-Arctic members of the Western alliance too much influence in an area where “they don’t belong”.

Meanwhile the Norwegian foreign minister relates privately how, during his March 2009 visit to Moscow, he sarcastically thanked his Russian counterpart Lavrov “for making it so much easier to justify the Joint Strike Fighter purchase to the Norwegian public, given Russia's regular military flights up and down Norway's coast.”

In another cable U.S. diplomats refer to “the potential of increased military threats in the Arctic.” A further U.S. diplomatic dispatch states that “behind Russia's (Arctic) policy are two potential benefits accruing from global warming: the prospect for an (even seasonally) ice-free shipping route from Europe to Asia, and the estimated oil and gas wealth hidden beneath the Arctic sea floor.”

The cables were published today on the website

Senior politicians from the Arctic nations – including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - are meeting this week at the Arctic Council meeting in Greenland to discuss issues including oil exploration and climate change.

Greenpeace Reaction

Greenpeace oil campaigner Ben Ayliffe reacting to the release of the new cables, said:

“These latest Wikileaks revelations expose something profoundly concerning. Instead of seeing the melting of the Arctic ice cap as a spur to action on climate change, the leaders of the Arctic nations are instead investing in military hardware to fight for the oil beneath it. They’re preparing to fight to extract the very fossil fuels that caused the melting in the first place. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.”

In one cable the then Danish foreign minister Moeller discusses delays in US ratification of a key maritime convention. "If you stay out,” Moeller is quoted as privately telling the Americans, “then the rest of us will have more to carve up in the Arctic."

In another cable the extent to which the United States sees Greenland as the site of significant US commercial interests is revealed – with American diplomats calling for the establishment of a bigger US presence on the island before boasting about introducing Greenland’s two most powerful politicians to “top U.S. financial institutions in New York”.

Another cable quotes Danish foreign minister Moeller’s opinion that “new shipping routes and natural resource discoveries would eventually place the region at the center of world politics.” The head of the Russian navy is quoted as saying “one cannot exclude that in the future there will be a redistribution of power, up to armed intervention.”

Ben Ayliffe of Greenpeace continued:

“As so often before, this new military build-up is all about oil. We need our political leaders to make a final push to get us off oil by investing in the clean, cutting-edge technologies that can power our economies without destroying the environment or sparking tension amid the icebergs and glaciers of the High North. Rather than pumping oil out of the Arctic, we should be extracting it from our car engines by passing stronger vehicle efficiency laws .”

This week the government of Greenland awarded licenses to Cairn Energy to drill for oil off Disko Island. The approval of the permits means that this year oil drilling off the pristine Greenland coast will happen further north, at greater depths and deeper into the winter months than ever before.