As the demand for fossil fuels grows, energy companies are looking for new ways to access oil and natural gas deposits all over the Earth. The Arctic is estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to contain 26 billion barrels of oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The incredible value of these deposits make the Arctic the center of a controversy over who has the right to drill for these resources and how they should be extracted.The first issue that arises when discussing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic is who actually has the rights to these resources. Unfortunately, there are a number of conflicting land and resource claims in the area. The United States (via its claims to Alaska), Canada, and Russia have held competing claims to the region for over 100 years, but until recently there was little economic reason to dispute these asserted rights; the technology wasn’t available to make it economically feasible to take advantage of these oil and gas deposits. As the temperature of the Earth warms, the thick layers of ice that were blocking the gateway to these resources melts away, and drilling technology improves, it is swiftly becoming possible to mine oil and gas in an economic manner.
Sorting out these competing land and resource claims is projected to take years. So called “freedom of the seas” claims date back to 17th century law -- these laws allowed nations to control the waters immediately adjacent to their territory. As the ice-free land map of the Arctic shifts and changes, these claims theoretically change along with it, giving additional rights to some countries and stripping them from others. In addition, there are a number of unilateral claims, such as a 1945 claim by the United States that it assumed jurisdiction of everything to the edge of the continental shelf. Russia, Canada, and a number of other countries quickly followed suit, making competing claims throughout the Arctic region.
Once the issue of control has been settled, there will be controversy surrounding how and where these resources can be reached. Numerous companies have already begun to make claims to various regions, even going so far as to build drilling platforms and storing equipment before the legality of their claims has been determined. For example, Royal Dutch Shell has recently made headlines for attempting to store two offshore drilling rigs near the Seattle waterfront. The company stored this equipment in 2012 at the deep water port, but attempts to use the facility again have been met with opposition by the mayor and environmental groups. More recently, Shell announced that they were suspending all Arctic drilling operations after investing over $7 billion in the region. Shell indicated in a statement that they found oil and gas, but with insufficient yields to warrant further exploration.
But Arctic exploration is still on the table for many E&P companies. To complicate the situation, numerous environmental groups have vowed to stop Arctic drilling over everything from concerns about safety to the idea that increased drilling would increase the world population’s dependence on fossil fuels. These groups also object to the construction of necessary infrastructure, such as pipelines, that would need to be put into place in order to transport these resources to the consumer market.
With such a large storehouse of resources in the balance, it is unlikely that any party in this controversy will give up their position easily.
PortVision and AIS data will play an increasingly larger role in supporting vessel logistics and maritime operations in the arctic. AIS-vessel tracking is primarily made available at the poles through satellite AIS. However, PortVision and its parent company, Oceaneering International are currently working with key players in the region to establish terrestrial coverage in key operational areas. This is an emerging area for AIS-based ship tracking that will surely rise in importance as the Arctic gains in strategic importance for energy exploration.