Energy & Environment

Debating Resource Exploitation in the Arctic and Antarctic

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As a world, we’re constantly on the lookout for new ways to obtain our non-renewable resources. Some of the new areas that have been discussed as possible drilling areas include the Arctic and Antarctic. Read on to learn about what drilling in those regions would mean, and the arguments for and the against expanding drilling to the Arctic and Antarctic.

Why would we want to drill in the Arctic and Antarctic?

The Earth’s poles, comprised of the Arctic at its northern pole and the Antarctic in the south, are held in a precarious geopolitical and environmental situation as melting ice at the fringes of the poles reveals reservoirs of valuable resources that are easier to extract than ever before. In September 2012, it was found that arctic ice levels were at their lowest on record, dating back to 1979. Aside from a myriad of environmental effects, these lower ice levels have also revealed the treasures they have held for millions of years: vital natural resources, and plenty of them.

Some have estimated that the Arctic holds roughly 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of its oil, while others have quantified the amount at around 40 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In addition to natural gas and oil, the Arctic and Antarctic contain large deposits of coal, lead, iron, chromium, copper, gold, nickel, platinum, uranium, and silver, which become increasingly valuable in an industrialized world. Figures such as these have many eager to begin extracting these materials for market, but they are held in restraint by grave environmental concerns over the economic and environmental future of the Arctic and Antarctic, and by international organizations that attempt to balance these concerns with the global need for fuel.

The Arctic is governed by the Arctic Council, a collection of eight countries whose international borders lie directly within the Arctic Circle. The Antarctic, on the other hand, has no territorial claims and is therefore governed by an international council of countries that conduct scientific experiments on the continent and who have a vested interests in its security and/or resources. As these resources grow steadily within our grasp during a time of economic stagnation, these groups must decide whether to make the Arctic and Antarctic off limits to resource exploration and exploitation, or to begin devising plans for environmentally sound exploitation of these regions.

Resource extraction in the Arctic has occurred since the 1970s, with both the US and Russia successfully drilling for oil north of the Arctic Circle. Since then, technological innovation has made oil drilling more profitable and environmentally sound than it has been in the past, which has advocates calling for an expansion of drilling projects currently occurring in the Arctic. Resource extraction, many argue, is currently ideal due a number of factors.

  1. The melting pack ice surrounding both the Arctic and Antarctic is gradually melting, making it easier to reach natural resources with less environmental impact.
  2. While the Arctic has territorial claims on its southern fringes, the majority of the Arctic and the entirety of the Antarctic have no political ownership and have no indigenous populations to stand in the way of these natural resources. Extraction would not displace or steal land away from any native population, and no one country or group of countries can monopolize the reserves of carbon-based and mineral resources there, making the polar regions a vital economic opportunity for all nations. Drilling has been taking place in Russia, Norway, and parts of Greenland and Canada with few negative environmental repercussions while providing these countries with vital natural resources, and advocates argue that as technology progresses, the positive potential for resource exploitation in the Arctic only increases. Oil drilling efforts have, in fact, brought economic prosperity to several northern towns and cities that would otherwise have been remote, forgotten villages on the political as well as geographical fringes of their respective countries. During the current economic recession, advocates argue, an influx of natural resources and raw materials would help to kick start manufacturing and consumption that would benefit the economy on a global scale.
  3. As climate change progresses, it will be come even easier and more cost effective to access these areas to drill.

What’s the argument against drilling in the Arctic and the Antarctic?

Opponents, led by environmental groups, argue that resource extraction in the Arctic and Antarctic will only exacerbate the current rate of global warming, strengthen our addiction to fossil fuels, and risk destroying one of the last untouched wildernesses on Earth. While melting pack ice on the fringes of the Arctic and Antarctic helps to uncover these stored resources, opponents of oil drilling and resource extraction point out that the reason why the pack ice is melting in the first place is because of global warming due to irreversible exploitation of resources and the burning of fossil fuels.

The “opportunity” that tantalizes advocates of exploitation, opponents argue, is merely an unfortunate side effect of that same opportunity. Achim Steiner, the United Nations Environmental Program’s Executive Director, said, “What we are seeing is that the melting of the ice is prompting a rush for exactly the fossil fuel resources that caused the melt in the first place.” The polar caps of the Earth are, in fact, a vast wilderness teeming with biodiversity and an area yet to be fully understood by scientists and naturalists. Because of its remote location and harsh environment, it has remained largely unchanged throughout the course of human industrialization. As technological innovation provides greater access to these regions and makes the exploitation of its resources easier, environmentalists are worried that the relentless search for energy will permanently ruin one of the last pristine wild areas on the planet.

Allowing resources such as oil, natural gas, and minerals to be extracted from the Arctic and Antarctic increases the risk of oil spills, Arctic pollution, and the destruction of natural habitats. While the Arctic and Antarctic may contain vast reservoirs of fossil fuels and natural resources and the combination of current technology and melting pack ice is making these resources easier to reach, many are fighting to keep the Arctic and the Antarctic the way they are: untouched by man.

Case Study: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was established in 1960 for the purpose of preserving a 19.6 million acre area of wilderness and the accompanying wildlife in northeastern Alaska bordering northern coastline. ANWR, operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is home to a variety of ecosystems as well as a variety of wildlife such as caribou, polar bears, grizzly bears, and muskoxen. The rest of Alaska’s northern coast, including Prudhoe Bay and much of the North Slope, have been opened to oil exploration and drilling, has delivered billions of barrels of oil to American markets since the 1970s. Since its formation there has been debate on whether to allow oil exploration and drilling to take place in ANWR. It is well known that Alaska sits on large oil reserves.

Advocates claim that oil drilling in ANWR would benefit the American economy with minimal environmental impact. Through land leasing, bids, and taxation the oil in Alaska’s wilderness is estimated to add billions of dollars in revenue to state and federal treasuries. The oil found here would be an alternative to costly imported oil, and the extraction of oil in ANWR is also estimated to create 250-735 thousand new jobs, further stimulating the economy. Advocates of drilling also argue that the environmental impact of oil exploration and drilling would be minimal, citing advanced drilling technology and the fact that only eight percent of the wildlife refuge would be used for exploration and drilling. Additionally, supporters cite polls that show a majority of Alaskan citizens favor drilling for oil in the refuge. Proponents of oil drilling say that the economic benefits would far outweigh the minimal environmental impact in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Opponents argue that the proposed economic benefits of oil drilling in the Arctic are minimal, and that the drilling severely harms local ecosystems and species. Given that oil prices are based upon world supply and are largely dictated by OPEC, drilling at ANWR would have little impact on oil prices for everyday consumers. This oil reserve would only account for one to four percent of daily consumption in the U.S., and if approved the oil would not reach markets for another ten years due to the exploration, construction, and production involved in creating a new oil field. Opponents cite a report written by the Environmental Information Agency claiming that at peak production in 2030 ANWR oil would only reduce foreign oil imports by three percent. Opponents of drilling also questions oil companies’ desire to find oil in ANWR when it was reported in 2010 by the Bureau of Land Management that oil companies were developing less than 30 percent of the federal land they had already leased or owned for the purpose of oil drilling. Citing these figures, opponents argue that access to oil inside ANWR would have little economic benefit to the United States.

Opponents also dispute the drilling advocates’ claim that the environmental impact of drilling would be much greater than proponents estimate. They disagree on the claim that exploration and drilling would use only eight percent of ANWR land. The oil in this area is scattered in several small pockets instead of one large reservoir, requiring much more land to explore and access these oil reserves. These lands would include birthing areas, migratory routes, and natural habitats of numerous wild species and a variety of ecosystems. Many opponents accept that advanced technology reduces the risk of oil spills and other disasters, but they argue that even the presence of heavy machinery and human interference will have adverse effects on these ecosystems and on the flora and fauna that live there. Environmentalists are also worried that allowing oil drilling in ANWR would open the floodgates to more corporate control over federally protected wildlife areas, thus nullifying the point of creating national parks and wildlife refuges in the first place.


It’s clear that there’s pressure to find new and reliable sources of natural gas and oil, but many opponents pose the important question: at what cost? There are both incentives and huge downsides to drilling the Arctic and Antarctic poles. As the options for where to get non-renewable resources continue to narrow, it’s an important debate to keep an eye on.



Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty: The Antarctic Treaty


Moscow Times: Russia Pushes For Further Arctic Exploitation

CNN: It’s Time to Develop Our Arctic Resources

Earth Sky: Robert Blaauw on Oil Exploration and Development in the Arctic

Arctic: Towards An Agenda For Arctic Sustainable Development

Minnesota Daily: ANWR Drilling Benefits Americans

Committee on Natural Resources: ANWR: Producing American Energy and Creating American Jobs ANWR Drilling Would Ease Energy Crisis, Create Economic Boon, Supporters Say

Cool Antarctica: Human Impacts on Antarctica and Threats to the Environment– Mining and Oil

Climate Science Watch: U.S. Arctic Strategy Aims to Exploit Oil and Gas For ‘National Security’

Reuters: Arctic Needs Protection From Resource Rush as Ice Melts

Grid Arendal: The Arctic–A New Victim of Global Development?

National Wildlife Refuge Association: Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Record: Oil is the New Gold in Arctic ‘Cold Rush’

Globe and Mail: The North’s Resource Boom: Is it Prosperity or Exploitation?

SciDev: Developing Nations Seek a Share of Antarctica’s Spoils

CBN News: The ANWR Debate: To Drill or Not to Drill

National Geographic: Arctic Oil Drilling Debate Escalates

Heritage Foundation: Opening ANWR: Long Overdue

Alaska Dispatch News: Drilling ANWR is Not the Answer to U.S. Energy Challenges


Joseph Palmisano
Joseph Palmisano is a graduate of The College of New Jersey with a degree in History and Education. He has a background in historical preservation, public education, freelance writing, and business. While currently employed as an insurance underwriter, he maintains an interest in environmental and educational reform. Contact Joseph at



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