A Brief History of Arctic Exploitation

by Annie Leonard

July 6, 2015

In order to understand Shell’s dangerous Arctic Ocean drilling plans, we need to understand the story of the Arctic itself.

Floating ice in the Arctic Ocean. As the Arctic sea ice is about to reach its lowest extent of the year, Greenpeace is in the Arctic to demand that world leaders take action on climate change at the upcoming UN climate summit in New York.

© Christian Åslund / Greenpeace

In order to understand the danger of Shell’s Arctic drilling plans, first we need to understand the history of the Arctic itself.

For the last 500 years, mainly European explorers searched the Arctic for what they called the Northwest Passage—a potential sea trading route from Europe to Asia. Historians even called this highly sought-after passage the “Arctic Grail” and characterized the explorers desperate to find it as having “Arctic fever.” While it turns out indigenous North Americans already knew the route and it was eventually sailed in the early 20th century, commercial navigation continued to elude the world as extensive sea ice choked the passage.

Quite a lot has changed since then.

We have explored practically every inch of our planet. The Industrial Revolution and rapid globalization resulted in trading sailing ships for exploration for fuel-hungry shipping vessels for international commerce. Most consequentially, an explosion of industry increased our atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 400 ppm, and increased the planet’s temperature by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

As a result, we’ve seen more extreme weather—intense droughts in some places and floods in others. We’ve seen melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers and decreased snowpack. In 2007, the European Space Agency reported that sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was so minimal that navigation through the Northwest Passage was theoretically possible, and in 2008 the first commercial vessel successfully made the voyage.

In addition to the frightening symbolism of a commercial vessel finally navigating the Northwest Passage after half a millennium of trying, the figures on sea ice are startling in their own right. In 2013, Foreign Affairs magazine reported:

“The portion of the Arctic Ocean covered by ice had been reduced to its smallest size since record keeping began in 1979, shrinking by 350,000 square miles (an area equal to the size of Venezuela) since the previous summer. All told, in just the past three decades, Arctic sea ice has lost half its area and three-quarters of its volume.

Rather than taking the time to reflect somberly on the damage unrestrained carbon pollution is doing to our planet, governments and global corporations looked at rapidly shrinking ice with only dollar signs in their eyes. Melting ice didn’t just open up the Northwest Passage, it also opened up  access to billions of dollars’ worth of fossil fuels and the carbon pollution that goes along with them.

The United States Geological Survey estimated that Arctic could contain up to 90 billion gallons of oil and 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This amounts to 13 percent of the world’s undeveloped but accessible oil. However, a January study in Nature showed that we cannot develop any Arctic energy sources if we want to have a chance of keeping warming below the two-degree Celsius threshold required to avoid a climate catastrophe.

The world’s oil corporations are adding insult to injury.

Despite their massive contributions to climate change, they are the first to pounce on a deeply wounded Arctic Ocean. In 2013, Gazprom, the Russian-owned energy giant, began the first permanent oil drilling in the Arctic. The countries with emerging coastlines that ring the Arctic, including the United States, and other oil corporations looking to drill in their territorial waters are not far behind.

We haven’t stood by quietly; we have taken action to protect the Arctic and to protect our world from the climate crisis. Greenpeace protested Gazprom’s Arctic drilling platform. We also protested the first delivery of oil from the Arctic to Europe.

We are at an unprecedented time in history, with ever-increasing access to a ticking time bomb of fossil fuel reserves in the Arctic, and Greenpeace is committed to doing whatever it takes to keep Arctic oil where it belongs—in the ground. Future generations will look to the decisions corporations and world leaders are making right now, and judge us by the actions we take.

Next week, we will look at Shell’s own history of failed and dangerous attempts to drill in the Arctic, and how President Obama still has a chance to say #ShellNo to Arctic drilling.

Annie Leonard

By Annie Leonard

Annie Leonard is the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA. Leonard began her career at Greenpeace in 1988 and has returned to help the organization inspire and mobilize millions of people to take action to create a more sustainable future together. She is based in San Francisco.

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