U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will assert her country’s interest in the Arctic, where the prospects for abundant oil, gas and new trade routes has been likened to a modern-day gold rush, when she visits the region on Saturday.
As the sea ice recedes with climate change, huge oil and gas fields are adding vast amounts to global reserves, while sea passages are opening for longer periods each year and cutting thousands of kilometres off trade routes between Europe and Asia.
Clinton will visit Tromsoe, a Norwegian town in the Arctic Circle, as part of an eight-day trip to Scandinavia, the Caucasus and Turkey.
She follows a host of high-profile international visitors who have made their way to the Arctic as the region enjoys unprecedented political and economic power.
Norway has moved its military operational headquarters into the Arctic Circle, China has development plans for Iceland and countries, including Russia, are laying claim to exploration rights in the once pristine Barents Sea.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited the remote Svalbard archipelago this year and a regional summit of Nordic leaders takes place in June.
But while the resources are there, the rules and infrastructure are just emerging.
“A lot of people perceived this as a modern-day gold rush into a no man’s land,” Jan-Gunnar Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsoe said. “The interest is not just from the traditional polar countries but China, Korea and Japan are also coming to the table.
“It has taken a lot of work to create an understanding that this isn’t the Wild West and it’s actually government by law,” Winther said.
Testifying in May before the U.S. Senate, Clinton said that as the Arctic warmed: “It is more important that we put our navigational rights on a treaty footing and have a larger voice in the interpretation and development of the rules.You will see China, India, Brazil, you-name-it – all vying for navigational rights and routes through the Arctic.”
One of the biggest reasons for the interest is energy.
“It’s all about oil and gas. It’s just a hot issue, it’s almost a cliché already,” said Aileen Aseron Espiritu, director of the Barents Institute at the University of Tromsoe. “Even Russia, the largest provider of oil and gas to Europe is keen to accelerate gas production from its offshore gas fields as soon as possible, or as soon as economically viable.”
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds about 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and 30 per cent of its undiscovered natural gas resources.