July 24, 2008 3:00 am
The Arctic holds as many as 90bn barrels of undiscovered oil and has as much undiscovered gas as all the reserves known to exist in Russia, US government scientists have said in the first state assessment of the region.
The estimates could fuel the race among polar nations, such as Russia, the US, Denmark, Norway and Canada, vying for control of the region, though the study said Russia and the Alaska platform appeared to have the most undiscovered resources.
Alaska's strong estimates are likely to strengthen controversial arguments for opening protected areas of the state.
The 90bn barrels of undiscovered oil the US Geological Survey believes the Arctic holds is 13 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil - about the known reserves of the United Arab Emirates. The 1,669,000bn cubic feet of natural gas are equivalent to 30 per cent of undiscovered gas reserves.
"The extensive Arctic continental shelf may constitute the geographically largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on earth," the USGS said. Its report only makes estimates based on conventional resources recoverable through a well bore; there could be more trapped in heavy sands or shale.
Last August Russia planted its flag on the seabed 4km under the North Pole raising fears of a rush to grab the Arctic's mineral resources. Denmark in May called a summit of the five Arctic powers to try to reiterate the countries' commitment to the UN's Law of the Sea Convention that governs territorial waters.
Yet Donald Gautier, a USGS scientist, said most of the undiscovered resources were in areas already under territorial claims, and the Pole itself did not appear "very interesting" for fossil fuels.
Commercial interest in exploiting the Arctic has increased with Royal Dutch Shell, the Anglo-Dutch energy group, pushing to help Russia develop gas from the Yamal region, and Total having won the right to do so at Russia's giant Shtokman gas field.
In the US, companies are pushing into Arctic Alaska, while Denmark has drawn interest in exploring off Greenland.
Mr Gautier said: "Only Arctic Alaska really booms out.'' It shows the most promise for oil resources, while Russia shows the most for natural gas.
Consultants Wood Mackenzie in 2006 estimated the Arctic basins, including those being developed, held 233bn barrels of discovered oil and gas and another 166bn that had yet to be found, most of it gas.
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