According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Arctic holds about one fifth of the world's undiscovered oil and a third of its natural gas. Both are coveted by developing and industrialized nations worldwide, and the gradual melting of Arctic sea ice over the last decade puts this prize now within reach.
Though most scientists agree that climate change is melting Arctic ice, and that the overall 30-year trend from 1978-2008 is downward, the actual rates of melting are a subject of dissent. Some say 2007 was a record melt year. Others argue for 1999 and 2004 as peak melts, and note that 2007-08 (and possibly 2008-09) saw an actual recovery of ice.
Either way, according to the latest Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, in one or two decades the entire Arctic could be ice-free for months at a time, making its petroleum deposits ripe for the picking as oil-starved nations, facing Peak Oil, scrabble for the last, easily extractable fossil-fuel deposits.
Countries that rim the Arctic Ocean - the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Iceland and Norway - are preparing to defend their rights to this last, great reserve. A report issued at Brussels summit (March 13/14, 2008) warned EU members to fortify their military forces for energy wars.
In the U.S., former U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Scott Borgerson warns of potential armed conflict between the U.S. and Canada, allies whose loyalties might well fail in the presence of Peak Oil.
"The United States should not underestimate Canadian passions on this issue," Borgerson wrote. "Unless Washington leads the way toward a multilateral diplomatic solution, the Arctic could descend into armed conflict."
This was not an idle threat. Before Bush left office, his White House cadre drove through a definitive but largely ignored directive on the Arctic. Known as the National Security Presidential Directive 66 (January 12, 2009), this midnight rule attempts to insure that the U.S. is prepared to defend its interests in the Arctic via missile defense, sealift, airlift, maritime presence and security operations, and any other means that will insure America's right to access Arctic waters either from the air or from the sea.
Largely ignored by the American press, the directive nonetheless provoked an almost instantaneous response from Russia via its media. First, the Voice of Russia ran a feature expressing concern that the U.S. had declared sovereignty over territories within the Arctic Circle, and positing that the incoming Administration was poised to expand U.S. presence in the Arctic.
In an encore presentation of animosity, the government-controlled newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta began preparing Russians for the idea that an international fight for Arctic oil would be "the initial spark for a new division of the world".
According to Artur Chilingarov, the voice of the Russian parliament when it comes to Arctic exploitation, "We are not prepared to give our Arctic to anyone."
The battle lines are being drawn not only in the media but in meetings. A January 28-29 assembly of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) met in Reykjavík, Iceland to discuss how Arctic perimeter nations will carve up the pie without also carving up each other.
This meeting, called the Seminar on Security Prospects in the High North, had the NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer noting that - while the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas was the legal framework for carving the pie - disputes among the Arctic rim countries over the 200-mile nautical limits and extension of the continental shelves were threatening "the indivisibility of the security of Allies, ... a principle we ignore at our peril".
It seems uncanny, and ominous, that Peak Oil has arrived at the apex of worldwide economic turmoil. It would be ironic if melting Arctic sea ice simultaneously gave the Western world access to one of the last significant reserves of petroleum while at the same time causing the collapse of the Gulf Stream, which would lead either to a new ice age or a global drought.