Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Lesson? What Lesson?

Arctic Ice Melt, 1979-2003, courtesy of NASA.

See that image? It is, as you may have guessed, a composite image from NASA showing the extent of Arctic ice melting over two decades and a half. This melting, of course, is caused by global warming, which is due in part to our rampant consumption of fossil fuels like oil. Now, it seems to me that a normal person who is familiar with the previous two sentences would look at that image and think, "Wow. We are seriously fucking things up. What can we do to ameliorate or at least slow the effects of this process?"

As it turns out, we are not at the mercy of what I would consider to be normal people.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Great Arctic Oil Rush.
Russia has taken a giant leap for the Kremlin by planting its flag on the ocean floor under the North Pole in a politically charged symbolic gesture to claim the rights to the sea bed which could be rich in oil and gas.

In a dramatic technical feat testing international law, the Russians dispatched two mini-submarines 2.5 miles to the ocean floor in what is believed to be the first expedition of its kind.

Both submersibles, with crews of three on board, completed their dangerous return to the surface yesterday after what was described as a "smooth landing".

But the expedition raised the hackles of Russia's neighbours, who also have their eye on the vast mineral deposits that could lie under the Arctic area, and who consider the Russian move as a brazen land grab. "This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory'," said Peter MacKay, Canada's Foreign Minister.

Russia has fired the first diplomatic shot in a really cold war. The new oil rush has been galvanised by the accelerated shrinking of the polar ice cap because of global warming, which has allowed exploration that had been previously unthinkable because of the extreme conditions.

Russia claims that the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range crossing the polar region, is an extension of its territory. The UN has rejected Moscow's 2001 claim to the ocean bed, which it says is part of its continental shelf under international law but the Russians are due to resubmit their case to the committee administering the Law of the Sea.

A brains trust of 135 Russian scientists, led by a 68-year-old personal envoy of President Vladimir Putin, the explorer Artur Chilingarov, plan to map out part of the 1,240-mile ridge.

But yesterday's scientific achievement of dropping a titanium capsule containing the Russian flag on to the seabed could not conceal the political advantage gained by Mr Putin. Once again, he has demonstrated to the West Russia's determination to expand its energy empire.

The news of the mission's success dominated Russian television yesterday. Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin's spokesman, said the President considered it "very important ... Being a unique scientific expedition, it is of course supported by the President."

The Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said: "I think this expedition will supply additional scientific evidence for our aspirations." But he added that the issue of territorial claim to the polar region "will be resolved in strict compliance with international law". If recognised, the claim would give Russia control of nearly half of the Arctic's near-half million square mile sea bed.

But four other countries - the US, Canada, Norway and Denmark - also have claims on the ocean floor which could hold as much oil and gas as Saudi Arabia. According to the US Geological Survey, the Arctic seabed and subsoil account for 25 per cent of undiscovered oil and gas reserves.
That's right. If you were an oil company executive, or Vladimir Putin, or (shudder) Dick Cheney, you'd see a grand strategic and business opportunity in the melting of the polar ice cap. Once again, that melting is due in no small part to human consumption of the same fossil fuels these people are so excited about obtaining. From what I've seen in major media reports of this scramble, no one has really mentioned the absurdist drama that is playing out before us.

As my friend Adam put it when I told him about that story, "That's like saying, 'I'm already drunk, why not go to 25-cent beer night?'"

Cross-posted over at First Draft.