There is unexplored oil on the order of 90 billion barrels and 1.67 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report, but most of the natural gas lies in the Arctic Ocean closest to Russia. The U.K.-based oil company, BP, PLC, has signed a $17-billion exploration deal with Russia in the hopes of replacing the declining output of its current fields in the North Sea.
Norway's state-owned Statoil has cold-weather expertise with which it hopes to exploit deposits in the Barents Sea, and Canada-based Imperial Oil is among a handful of companies bidding on Canadian claims in the Beaufort Sea. "Seismic will help us determine where we might want to drill, but ultimately we won't know if we've picked the wrong place until we've actually created a well," says Glen McCrimmon, Imperial's geoscience manager for the area.
Aside from already valuable commodities like oil and natural gas, the world's next alternative energy source may lie trapped in the Arctic ice itself. Gas hydrates—a mixture of ice and methane—are found only in high-pressure and cold temperatures. Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation has bankrolled much of the research into depressurizing deposits a mile under the ocean surface. "People realized, 'Holy cow, this stuff starts bubbling and fizzing when you get it on deck. It's actually flammable. What the heck is it?'" says David Scott, manager of the Northern Resources Development Program for Natural Resources Canada. Gas hydrates are expected to make up a significant portion of the energy mix once existing oil fields dwindle, Scott says.
Even with the best geophysical data, there will still be political questions. The largest feature that demands negotiating is the Lomonosov Ridge, which transects the Arctic Ocean, extending 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers) from Siberia to Greenland and Canada's Ellesmere Island. "It is possible that the Lomonosov Ridge is attached to all three," says Jorn Skov Nielsen, deputy minister of minerals and petroleum for the Greenland Home Rule Government. "Our geological investigation may find that the North Pole area is part of Greenland's shelf."
Lomonosov was likely a slice of the Siberian shelf that broke off northward during the Cenozoic era when the Eurasian Basin opened up on the Arctic Ocean floor, but its current ties to Russia are disputed. Russia, Canada and Denmark may all end up claiming the ridge—and the rich resources connected to it.
"It's hard to imagine the ridge is continuous for such a long distance," contends Benoit Beauchamp, director of the Arctic Institute of North America in Calgary, Alberta. "But it's not rocket science to find out. Just expensive and hard to access under the ice."