Global Sanctuary or Global Gold Mine?: The pros and cons of exploration in the Arctic region


We have all heard various proclamations associated with global warming: “Save the polar bears!” “The ice is melting as lightening speeds!” Well, last time I checked the polar bears are still alive and thermal wear is required to visit the North Pole.

Well, imagine packing your parka to vacation in the Bahamas or paying for the extra month of air conditioning you need to stave off the humidity in southern California? There have, in fact, been noticeable changes since the start of the global warming campaign. With these changes come both opportunities for natural gas and oil exploration as well as health and environmental risks. Given the pros and cons of different approaches, would it be irresponsible to allow cautious, but still profit-driven, oil drilling in the Arctic? I believe so.

According to a study by NASA, the thickest and oldest parts of the Arctic caps are melting at the fastest rate that they have been since 1980. This part of the ice that survives at least two summers is called “multi-year ice”. This ice has been melting at a rate of -15.1% per decade in recent years. The size of the area of ice coverage hit an all-time low in 2008, rose for a little while, and then hit the second-lowest size in 2012.

Environmental and Life Risks

The Arctic regulates weather patterns around the globe. The wind currents take warm air up to the Arctic and return at a cooled temperature. With a non-uniform melting of the ice, these wind patterns can be disrupted and result in “random” weather patterns. The Natural Resources Defense Council predicts that “climate change will worsen smog and causes plants to produce more pollen pollution, increasing respiratory health threats”. Lastly, the polar bears of course. The Arctic provides a home to a plethora of delicate animal species that depend on the frozen tundra for life.

Oil Drilling

The melting also presents some unique opportunities for oil and natural gas exploration. Many precautions are taken in the business of oil drilling and they seem to be paying off. Approximately 300-500 oil spills occur per year, but they only account for 12% of the oil that ends up in the ocean. In fact, only 0.001% of the oil that is transported is spilled.

Despite these impressive statistics, oil drilling still involves heat. Ice must be forcibly melted in order to clear a path for the oil rigs. During the extraction process, water containing a harmful toxin known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) gets removed with the oil and thrown overboard back in to the sea. At low concentrations, the toxins cause birth defects, but at high concentrations they can be lethal.

Black Gold Mine

What drives my concern about diving into the Arctic is that it is a black gold mine for oil and natural gas. The people interested in the region are being driven by money. A recent article in the New York Times discussed the race to carve up the Arctic. With the UN Convention’s Law of the Sea of 1982 in place, ownership of many of the waters and continental shelves in the area have been given to bordering countries such as Greenland, Iceland, Canada, and Russia. The article brought attention to China’s obvious efforts to build good relations with these Arctic States by investing in the nation’s economy and other endeavors. This fervor has alarmed Western nations concerned about China’s intentions beyond natural resources considering the region is an effective launching pad to a number of different nations. The area also opens the door to new war strategies that involve traversing the Arctic sea and using the ice to one’s advantage. Between money and war, the environmental prestige of the Arctic would not stand a chance.

Economists are not in definite agreement, but there is evidence shown that increasing the domestic production of oil would only result in a 3¢ increase over a span of 10-20 years at best. By harvesting 3 years worth of oil in the Arctic, we very well may be doing more damage than we can foresee at this time. Rebuilding ice is not as simple as planting a tree. Arctic ice melting is more analogous to the ozone layer depletion: easy to do and hard to fix. We cannot fight Mother Nature. There could be more Hurricane Katrinas or California wildfires that plague our nation as a result of exacerbation in that area. Until more reliable prediction models are put in to place, I would not feel comfortable taking the region for granted in any capacity








7)    Rosenthal, E. (2012, September 19). Race Is On as Ice Melt Reveals Arctic Treasures. New York Times, p. A14.


  1. Sophie Vos

    I agree with your stance that drilling for oil in the Arctic should not be allowed. The energy and resources needed to set up the required infrastructure (oil rigs, refineries, pipelines, ship transport, housing for workers, etc.) would produce emissions on such a large scale that the rate of the already increasing Arctic temperatures would surely be amplified. Higher temperatures mean thinner ice and higher access, which fuels pro-oil drilling arguments, which would then result in even thinner ice and even more access. This slippery slope of an endless cycle of climate degradation would devastate the local habitat. The question of Arctic access for shipping routes, military stations, mining other natural resources, tourism, and numerous other activities would create a political and environmental nightmare.

  2. Olivia Shepard

    While I agree that there are clear negative impacts to arctic drilling (mainly the positive feedback loop of melting, leading to more drilling, leading to more melting that Sophie lays out, and also the fact that there is little infrastructure in the arctic for spill clean up) it is necessary to examine the alternatives. If the US cannot meet its energy needs from domestic sources, we must continue to rely on foreign sources for oil imports. This implicitly forces the US to economically support the Venezuelan dictatorship as well as become involved in tense political and economic relations with the middle east. The US imports around 61% of it’s oil and decreasing this number would minimize impact of a foreign oil embargo, or other sudden cutoff to foreign imports. Additionally, more domestic energy production (and not necessarily oil production but cleaner technologies as well) provides more US jobs and a boost to our economy. The ultimate goal of US environmental policy leaders is to make sure that the most environmentally friendly energy solutions are also the most economical. If we sync up those two goals, the system will be self-sustaining.
    While arctic drilling may not be the optimal choice for US energy production, there is a clear advantage to domestic oil over foreign sources.


    I think that you are completely right that arctic drilling should not be allowed. The U.S. has pursued an unsustainable energy policy for too long. The U.S. has not come to the realization that there are limited resources in this world, and that once things have been used up or destroyed, they may be irreplaceable. I think the Arctic is one of those resources. The arctic ice is continually melting harming. This melting harms not only polar bears in terms of destroying its habitat, but it also has real and serious implications for humans, as sea levels continue to rise. While foreign sources of energy are not the ideal, I think that is an alternative that we should continue to utilize. Hopefully, the cons of foreign energy sources and the drive for domestic energy production will finally incentivize the U.S. to pursue more renewable energy sources domestically.

    In addition, I am unsure if drilling in the Arctic can be done safely after all of the recent oil spills and lack of regulation in the oil and natural gas industry. Oil companies are willing to do anything to acquire cheap energy and will sacrifice the environment. The American people need to stand up to prevent the Arctic from being destroyed as so many other pristine habitats have been.

    Also, maybe I am confused by why would increasing domestic oil production increase the price by 3 cents? Wouldn’t it decrease the price by 3 cents?


    I know the last time you checked the polar bears where there, but the next time you check they may not be. However, I agree that the Noah Wyle ads are annoying. While I am a romantic and agree that there should not be drilling, I fear for the North. Like you said, money wins. The growing environmental movement in the US may eventually be enough to permanently erase the risk of arctic oil drilling, but with our current dependence on foreign oil and the vast amount of oil that is predicted to lie beneath the ice im afraid that money will win. Like many have said oil is obviously not the answer to our long term energy problem and if it is then the problem wont be too long term because we’ll all be gone, but those extra oil reserves could seem like just what we need to bolster a transitionary period to a new energy source. Like hybrid cars the transition is never going to be sharp, we are going to have to ween ourselves off oil as alternatives become cheap enough for large scale use, but the longer it takes to intensify that process the greater the danger for the arctic.

  5. Michaela Foster

    I agree that arctic drilling should not be allowed, but I’m afraid that regardless of the options of us environmentalists, it seems almost inevitable that resources from the Arctic will be extracted in the future. Americans continue to aim for energy independence even when it’s not necessary or even possible, and policies reflect this by allowing for drilling and extraction of resources in areas that are sensitive to environmental damage, could compromise human health, and may not provide enough of the resource to make the benefits outweigh the costs. Drilling in the Arctic is an example of this–American policymakers and oil companies doing whatever it takes to recover more domestic oil with disregard to the short and long term consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, money usually trumps most other arguments, and I fear that unless climate change begins to affect more people more intensely and directly and scares them into demanding greater environmental protection that it is inevitable that drilling will occur in the Arctic, and the consequences of that drilling will be left up to our grandchildren to mitigate.

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