The global hunger for oil is fuelling a new gold rush
Giant snowflakes tumble down outside the Kaikanten bar. Inside, Mustafa Mirreh
from Somalia stares down his pool cue, trying to pot the black. His opponent,
Italian engineer Pier Luigi Poletto, has turned to the slot machine. The Kilkenny
beer has run out. There is only canned Guinness. This could be grounds for a
fight, but French fishermen J-P and Max have been distracted by the rare sight
of a woman crossing the floor.
These are the Klondikers of global warming: men from all over the world
who have come to Hammerfest, gateway to the Barents Sea, to make their fortune
from new resources - oil, gas, fish and diamonds - made accessible by the receding
It is the dark season here - two months from November to January when the sun
never rises above the snow-laced rocks around Hammerfest, ice-free thanks to
the Gulf stream. In the horseshoe-shaped port, trawlers from all over the world
wait for favorable weather to head back into the Barents Sea. Hammerfest, with
its colorful wooden houses, feels cozy. But it is a nerve center of the scramble
for the Arctic's wealth that raises urgent questions.
The 14 million sq km Arctic Ocean is home to 25 per cent of the planet's unextracted
oil and natural gas. With a population of four million, the region is much more
stable than the Middle East. Global warming, in combination with the current
high oil price, makes it ever more accessible. Yet the bordering countries -
Russia, Canada, the US, Norway and Danish Greenland - have yet to agree on who
owns what. Long-forgotten bays, waterways and islands are moving to the top
of the international agenda.
Mirreh, 19, has spent eight months as a cleaner at Snow White, a giant liquefied
natural gas (LNG) plant at Hammerfest, one of the world's biggest building sites.
'The wage is £20 an hour. I have saved £20,000. The problem is there
is nothing to do and not enough women,' he said.
French trawler skipper Pascal Verdière has had no trouble filling his
Grande Hermine trawler's 250-tonne cod quota. 'Cod likes a water temperature
below two degrees, so whereas, three years ago we did our fishing around 75
degrees north, we now have to go as far as 80 degrees, which means Spitzbergen
and bad storms.' But each of his 35 crew earns £15,000 for 12 weeks at
Trawlers are frequently at the center of territorial disputes. Whereas the
Antarctic was carved up in 1959, no international treaty exists to determine
the extent of each Arctic nation's ownership. Last month Cryosat, a space shuttle
launched to measure the Arctic thaw and the limits of the continental shelves,
crashed after lift-off in Russia. As a result, debates are guided by rival scientific
studies, such as one which claims the North Pole for Denmark by alleging it
sits on Greenland's continental shelf.
Last week the Norwegian coastguard arrested two Spanish trawlers in the waters
around the Svalbard Islands, which Norway has unilaterally decreed a fisheries
protection zone. Oslo and Madrid are now in a complicated row over who has the
right to prosecute.
Norway and Russia are soon to resume talks - stalled for two years - over a
disputed area of the Barents Sea. While an agreement exists between them allowing
fishing in part of the area, known as the Grey Zone, both countries want access
to the larger disputed area for oil and gas exploration. Immediately to the
east of the area, the Russians have discovered the 1,400sq km Shtokman field,
the largest offshore gas deposit in the world.
Resolution of the dispute could have an impact on the entire Arctic area. The
Russians want the 'sector line principle' to be applied, meaning that the Arctic
should be divided, cake-like, from the Pole. The Norwegians want the 'median
line principle' - a border line along which each point is equidistant to each
country's land mass. Despite the rivalries, Arctic expert Olav Fagelund Knudsen
doubts whether anyone would go to war over them. 'Russia and the US became pretty
good at resolving their differences during the Cold War. So there is room to
hope they will be sensible. The most exciting development in the region is who
will control the North East Passage and its lucrative shipping between Europe
He said a Russian mine on Svalbard is already extracting high-quality coal.
De Beers, the mining giant, and about 60 other prospecting companies are searching
for diamonds beneath frozen lakes in northern Canada. In the US, there is pressure
to increase oil exploration. A dispute between Denmark and Canada this year
over Hans Island - an uninhabited rock off Greenland - centers on the potential
for oil in the Nares Strait. There are outstanding disputes between the US and
Canada over the North West Passage and the Beaufort Sea. The Russian parliament
has yet to ratify a 1990 agreement with the US dividing the Bering Sea. Only
a small international body, the Arctic Council, exists to mediate. Its main
focus is the welfare of four million mainly nomadic people. The only legal tool,
the Convention on the Law of the Sea, has not been ratified by the US.
Meanwhile, evidence suggests the Klondikers are right to head north. According
to data published last month, the area covered by ice in September - 5.3 million
sq km - was the lowest since records began in 1978. In August the Akademik Fyodorov
became the first ship to reach the North Pole unassisted by an icebreaker.
Opposite the Kaikanten bar, Alf-Birger Olsen sits in the council offices counting
the benefits of global warming to the 9,300 population. 'Hammerfest, ice-free
all year, was proclaimed a town in 1789. We were a base for polar bear hunters
and cod fishermen. But in recent times the Norwegian government had to give
people incentives to live in the region,' said the trade and industry director.
When talk turns to the Snow White gas project, Olsen's eyes light up. 'Building
the plant has required 2,000 people of 57 nationalities ... The population of
Hammerfest has increased and dozens of spin-off businesses created.'
The project will come on stream in 2007 to deliver 2.4 billion cubic metres
of liquefied natural gas to the US and Spain among others.
Property tax paid by Statoil, the company which owns the £5.8bn Snow
White terminal, has provided funding for a new Arctic Culture center. 'We are
really thankful to Statoil,' said culture chief Gerd Hagen, 'but this development
is not all good. When 2,000 men suddenly descend on a little town, it changes
things. There are fights at the weekend and women feel the need to withdraw
a little bit. They have their bar, Kaikanten, and we have another place in the