In a development that seems to reinforce a number of ongoing trends, it seems there may be oil to exploit off the coast of Greenland. As with other places in the Arctic, the combination of new technologies, higher oil prices, and retreating ice is making it plausible to access fossil fuels that would once have been out of reach. At least as reported by The Economist, residents seem moderately intrigued by the prospects for increased wealth, but largely disinterested in the ongoing climate change that could profoundly transform the massive island:
Most of Greenland’s 56,000 inhabitants seem persuaded [that the risk from oil spills is acceptable]. Despite the vulnerability of the country’s ice sheet to global warming, a recent Greenpeace meeting in Nuuk drew a paltry 45 people. Even this minimal interest in the environmentalists’ message could fall further as the implications of this week’s news start to sink in.
Cairn Energy, a British oil and gas firm, already has an area designated for exploration which is thought to include 4 billion barrels of oil. United States Geological Survey data suggests that a total of 17 billion barrels may lie in the waters between Canada and Greenland.
As with so many issues related to climate change, there is an important disjuncture here between different relevant timescales. Whereas it is plausible that the next few decades could see the deployment of offshore oil and gas platforms in the Arctic – and at least the beginning of significant revenues from them – the warming of the climate will largely occur over a more extended span of time. Nevertheless, we have good reasons to believe that the emissions trajectory humanity is investing in right now is incompatible with the continued existence of the Greenland icesheet, though the disappearance will probably take centuries. Of course, that change will profoundly alter life in the region. At the same time, the seven metres of sea level rise embedded in that ice would surely prove problematic for many of the cities and nations that may find themselves benefitting from the use of Greenland’s oil and gas in the interim.