USGS: Arctic Circle chock full of oil and gas

A report by the US Geological Survey found that the region inside the Arctic Circle contains just over one-fifth of the world's undiscovered, recoverable oil and natural-gas resources.What does this mean for our energy needs, and for the planet?

The Esmark glacier on the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle.

A report by the US Geological Survey found that the region inside the Arctic Circle contains just over one-fifth of the world's undiscovered, recoverable oil and natural-gas resources.

The report, the largest-ever survey of energy resources north of the Arctic Circle, found that the area holds an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

"Before we can make decisions about our future use of oil and gas and related decisions about protecting endangered species, native communities and the health of our planet, we need to know what's out there," said USGS Director Mark Myers in a press release. "With this assessment, we're providing the same information to everyone in the world so that the global community can make those difficult decisions."

Several news outlets are all over this story. Here's what they have to say about what I think are the most important questions:

How much is it, really?

Most news outlets that covered this story say that, at today's consumption rate of 86 million barrels of oil a day, the oil in the Arctic would meet global demand for three years.

Keith Johnson, The Wall Street Journal's environmental blogger, notes that it would be 12 years if the United States could keep all the oil for itself. "The Arctic reserves might bring a little relief to tight markets," writes Mr. Johnson, "but they don’t look like the answer to declining production in oil fields in the rest of the world."

As for the natural gas reserves, The New York Times reports that the region holds about 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas, an amount equal to Russia's proven gas reserves, which are the world’s largest. But most of the natural gas estimated to be in the Arctic is also in Russia: as the Associated Press reports, the majority of it is concentrated in two Russian provinces.

How much would it cost to extract it?

Pumping oil out of the hot desert is one thing. Pumping it out of the Arctic seabed is another matter altogether. The New York Times's Dot Earth blogger, Andrew Revkin, calls Arctic drilling "ridiculously hard," and he directs readers to a story he wrote in 2004 that highlights the challenges of drilling there.

Johnson, The Wall Street Journal blogger, points to a USGS excercise in Arctic oil number-crunching [Excel spreadsheet] that calculates that a billion-barrel field would cost about $37 per barrel to extract, plus at least another $3 in exploration costs. By comparison, CNN reported last year that it costs about $2 per barrel to pump oil from the ground in Saudi Arabia, and $5 to$7 per barrel in Venezuela and Azerbaijan.

The irony of course is that global warming is making it easier to extract these resources by melting Arctic ice.

Who owns it?

Recent years have seen a race among the Arctic powers – the United States, Russia, Denmark, Canada, and Norway – to lay claim to the ocean floor at the North Pole.

But the USGS estimates that most of the oil is not at the pole, but near Canada, Russia, and the United States. The USGS found that more than half of the oil resources are in just three regions: Arctic Alaska (30 billion barrels), the Amerasia Basin (9.7 billion barrels) and the East Greenland Rift Basins (8.9 billion barrels).

More than 70 percent of the natural gas is thought to occur in three regions the West Siberian Basin, the East Barents Basins, and Arctic Alaska.

So it looks as though Arctic Alaska has the greatest energy potential, with Russia also having an important stake as well, particularly in natural gas. But there is undoubtedly also some oil and natural gas in Arctic regions whose sovereignty is disputed.

The Globe and Mail, a Canadian daily, provides a breakdown of exactly where and how much all the oil and natural gas is (scroll down to the end of the story).

What's the environmental impact?

Dot Earth's Revkin discusses the possibility of an oil spill in icy Arctic waters: "The Arctic is a very different place," he writes, "both because the water is so much colder that oil tends to congeal more, and because sea ice (at least in winter these days) can stall the spread of oil but also make it harder to clean up."

But the question on most people's minds is climate change. If we were to burn all that oil and natural gas, how much CO2 would be added to the atmosphere?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a single barrel of oil emits 0.43 metric tons, or 948 pounds, of carbon dioxide. So 90 billion barrels would emit 38.7 billion metric tons of C02.

According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis center, 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas emits about 0.052 metric tons, or 115 pounds, of CO2. Divide that by 1,000 and then multiply by 1,670 trillion, and we get about 87 billion metric tons of CO2.

None of these figures include the emissions produced by extraction or transportation of the fuels.

By comparison, current global consumption of fossil fuels produce about 27 billion tons of CO2 annually.

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