Melting ice in the Arctic is a physical transformation that is drastically changing the political and economic climate of the north. A U.S. geographical survey estimated that one-quarter of the Earth's undiscovered petroleum reserves-- 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas-- is quietly waiting under the environmentally fragile Arctic seabed.
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers spokesperson Travis Davies remarked that resource development looks very promising, especially considering the strong stand the Canadian government is taking on its sovereignty in the Arctic.
"Government reaction in the north is encouraging as a starting point for sustainable resource development and consideration of the northern people, ecosystem and general well-being of the north," said Davies. "This is very early in the process, but a critical part of building a strong and stable regulatory policy for the north."
Pembina policy director Chris Severson- Baker argued fossil fuels are unsustainable.
"You can start bending the curve towards sustainability, but you can't burn fossil fuels in a sustainable way," said Severson-Baker.
He explained that the Arctic is a very fragile ecosystem because its extreme climate results in little biological production and any environmental disaster would take 1,000s of years to recover from.
U of C Arctic Institute of North America director Dr. Benoit Beauchamp recognized the risks and costs of resource development in the north, but looks to Norway as an example of sustainable offshore Arctic resource extraction.
"Norway has exploited oil and gas on its offshore continental shelf in the North Sea for 30 years," said Beauchamp. "It has an essentially unblemished environmental record. They do it the right way."
Resources hidden beneath the Arctic seabed don't fall neatly within the jurisdiction of any one nation. Five countries with Arctic coastlines, Canada, the United States, Norway, Russia and Denmark met in Ilulissat, Greenland in May. All agreed to defer to the 1982 United Nations convention on the Law of the Sea. According to this treaty, a nation's jurisdiction extends 280 kilometres offshore and if a country wishes to extend its dominion, it must prove that the desired seabed is a geological extension of its continental shelf. A UN panel is set to define territory in the Arctic by 2020 and all five nations are building cases to extend their watery borders.
"Certainly there is a game that has started in the Arctic," said Beauchamp. "It's a game about territorial claims, but underlying all this sovereignty talk is resources."
Exercising Canadian sovereignty in the north, however, goes beyond obtaining potential resources. This year marked the second time in recorded history that a deep-water route through the Northwest Passage has been ice-free. The passage connects the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean via Canada's Arctic archipelago. If ice continues to melt, it would be a faster route for foreign cargo tankers traveling between Europe and Asia than the Panama Canal.
Canada has always considered the passage to be within its sea boundaries, but other countries, such as the U.S., have maintained that the passage is an international body of water. Last week Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper proposed legislation to tighten Canada's grip on the Northwest Passage.
"It will be interesting to see, I expect some countries may object," said Harper.