How are climate change and new ocean laws affecting global patterns of resource ownership?
New resource rush
As Arctic sea ice cover melts to its lowest known level, the ocean floor beneath is beginning to give up its secrets.
The rush is on to find new mineral wealth and many of the world’s major players – including Russia, Canada and the US – are staking their claims.
Meanwhile, an important deadline for international ocean law is approaching and nations everywhere are trying to snatch a bigger piece of the sea bed for themselves. Everyone is on the outlook for greater “energy security” - before time runs out!
Scramble for the seabed: Arctic ice thins to record levels
Empire-building at sea: new laws come into force
Population and natural resources: Boserup’s theory
Practice A-level questions
Is the world about to run out of oil? Many experts think that the moment of peak oil production may nearly be upon us. According to The Guardian (27 October 2007), the UK is certainly “in the autumn of its North Sea era”.
In 2006 the North Sea oil output was the lowest since 1979 (when production really started to take off for the first time). Nearly thirty years later, easily-extractable reserves are getting harder and harder to find. And the same story is true for many other nations and oil fields around the world.
What can be done to find more oil and other non-renewable resources? Leading industrialised nations of the Northern Hemisphere have long wondered whether untapped oil riches might lie beneath the Arctic Ocean.
The ice cover of the Arctic Ocean shrinks in the summer and re-grows in the autumn and winter, in a regular cycle. However, climate change and warmer temperatures mean that the area of re-growth is getting smaller each year. This means that large areas of ocean at the edges of the Arctic have become permanently free of ice and are easier to explore than in the past.
Meanwhile, other regions of the Arctic sea are now ice-free for at least part of the year for the first time, making exploration and drilling easier there too. During 2007, the total area of ice cover shrunk to an all-time low of 1.6 million square miles. Between 1979 (when regular satellite monitoring had just started) and 2000, the long-term average minimum has been 2.6 million sq miles. New figures therefore suggest there has been a remarkable increase in the rate of melting.
Early predictions by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), based on computer models of global warming, suggested that as climate change advances the Arctic might become wholly ice-free in summer. The belief was that this might happen by around 2080. Now some scientists think the models have seriously underestimated the rate and that it may happen much earlier (The Independent, 22 September 2007).
The dash for cash: staking a claim
At the start of August 2007, a Russian mini-submarine planted a titanium Russian flag on the Arctic ocean floor. This old-fashioned empire-building gesture made headlines around the world (The Guardian, 03 August 2007).
Shortly afterwards Canada flexed its own military muscle and announced plans to build two new army bases in the Arctic region, a gesture clearly aimed at bolstering any future Canadian claims to land ownership along the nation’s Northern periphery.
The US, Norway and Denmark have also lodged claims, according to The Guardian (11 August 2007). The newspaper noted that “arguments over the Arctic were until recently academic because of the depth of the ice, but global warming has seen some of it melt, making drilling feasible. The US geological survey estimates that 25% of the world's undiscovered oil and gas could be located under the polar cap.”
According to New Statesman (09 August 2007), the current centre of attention in the Arctic energy landscape is the Shtokman oil field, off north-west Russia in the Barents Sea. Russia’s Arctic regions also contain deposits of precious and base metals and “all across the top of the world, the encroachment of industry is well under way”.
It is not just the retreat of sea-ice that brings new resource opportunities. As land-based glaciers on Greenland retreat due to rising temperatures, rocks covered for centuries are starting to produce spectacular mineral wealth. Diamonds and gold have been discovered in newly-exposed parts of Greenland (The Guardian, 04 October 2007). Oil companies are now making some serious investigations.
All of this could be good news for Greenland as a whole. Greater mineral wealth will free Greenlanders from their continuing dependency upon financial support from Denmark (equivalent to £5000 per year for each of the 56,000 Greenlanders).
However, there will be many individual losers amongst the population as a whole. While an industrial age of mineral exploitation may beckon Greenland, the traditional seal-hunting life for people living in the northern of the country may soon be at an end if the ice continues to melt (The Guardian, 14 September 2007).
United Nations laws mean that 60 nations will soon be able to lay claim to mineral deposits found far out to sea throughout all of the world’s oceans.
Under existing legislation, the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulates that nations can exploit resources (whether fish stocks or sea-bed deposits such as oil and valuable minerals) up to 200 miles away from the coastline.
This is known as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
However, geological factors make this limit flexible. Where the earth’s continental plates dip beneath the sea - sometimes very dramatically in the case of subduction zones - an area of sea-bed called the continental shelf can be identified .
As scientific techniques have improved, geological and geophysical surveys can map the ocean floor more accurately and can confidently establish the “continental shelf outer limit”.
Coastal countries understandably feel that the continental shelf directly adjacent to their coastline is an extension of their territory, especially when geology supports the claim.
Countries with a coastline, such as the UK, feel they should be able to take ownership of sea-bed resources from the continental shelf. UNCLOS allows for this by setting an additional limit – beyond the 200 miles of the EEZ – as long as it does not exceed 350 miles in total.
Clearly this brings a lot of extra sea-floor under a nation’s ownership if a geological claim can be proven. Plenty of time is allowed for states to undertake their important research but an important deadline is now approaching. The first 60 nations who agreed to sign up to the UNCLOS must stake their final continental shelf claims by May 2009 – and this includes the UK.
Things start to get really interesting when we remember that the 350 miles limit may also be claimed on the continental shelf that encircles a nation’s overseas territories – including tiny islands that lie far out to sea. For instance, the UK owns the Falkland Islands and the Ascension Islands, both way out in the South Atlantic (remnants of Britain’s once-vast Empire). As The Guardian newspaper (22 September 2007) explains:
“The new UN law means that specks in the oceans, such as Ascension Island and the Falklands have acquired new diplomatic significance. With each landfall comes the possibility of a 350 mile circle of hydrocarbon and mineral potential. The lure of the Earth's final frontiers is the possibility of oil, gas and minerals deposits. Shrinking resources and growing energy needs mean any new territory is at a premium, particularly as new technologies are changing the face of exploration and mineral recovery.”
A 350-mile circle of seabed around these ocean islands would certainly constitute a great resource grab for the UK. But countries with their own claims to make in the same waters (such as Argentina, the nearest neighbour of the Falkland Islands) are certain to protest if the UK’s claim is approved.
There is a similar storm brewing over the island of Rockall in the North Sea. Iceland, Ireland, Norway and the UK are all set to make continental shelf claims in the waters surrounding this tiny rocky island that the UK formally annexed in 1955.
In 1972, the Limits to Growth model was published, forecasting that the earth’s finite resources, such as oil, were due to run out.
In contrast to this pessimistic view of affairs, other writers believe that human ingenuity will ultimately find a solution to any approaching shortage of resources.
Such optimism underlies Ester Boserup’s theory of resource growth. She claimed that the drive to feed and house increasing numbers of people actually stimulates the scientific community into working to raise the carrying capacity of the environment.
Boserup based this argument on her own anthropological studies of farming improvements in poor nations during the 1960s.
She observed that population growth encouraged crop rotation and changes in land ownership that in turn helped raise productivity.
According to Boserup, such reforms only occur when the threat of population pressure is evident and the carrying capacity of the land is about to be exceeded.
Over time, she envisages a series of sudden leaps forward in the scale of resource production.
The quest for energy security now underway that is leading to improved sea-floor prospecting and drilling techniques - as well as renewed diplomatic pressure for sea-floor claims to be recognised at an international level - provides support for Boserup’s famous argument about resources. It is neatly summed up by the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”.
For instance, 25 billion barrels of oil were recently discovered beneath the Gulf of Mexico. National Geographic magazine (June 2004) quoted one geophysicist as saying “if you had asked me in 1961, I’d have said that what we’re doing now is impossible.” This brings another old saying to mind: “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.
Material used on this page previously featured in our June 2004 article Crude Shock which explores the concept of “peak oil production”.
Explain how countries with limited natural resources can sustain high rates of population growth (Edexcel Specification A 2007).
This short-answer question is testing students’ understanding that resource levels are not fixed. From time to time, shortages will be brought about by population growth and excess levels of consumption. When this is the case, the mobilisation of the scientific community – encouraged by politicians and businesses looking for potential new profits – results in new discoveries being made. Alternatively, trade and the use of human resources can allow resources to be imported by regions that are lacking. Finally, there is always colonisation and annexation for the truly desperate!
A full scoring student answer that has applied content found in this article might read as follows:
If a country’s population grows so rapidly that it begins to run out of resources, then scientists may develop new ways of growing food or powering engines – such as GM foods or nuclear power. This is the basis of Boserup’s argument that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. In 2007, new technology is allowing coastal countries to identify parts of the continental shelf that belong to them – which they may then legally be allowed to take oil and minerals from. Melting Arctic ice is also making it easier for firms to locate new oil. Of course, in the past, when countries needed more resources they often just took them from other countries (e.g. the British Empire).
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