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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 October 2005, 06:50 GMT 07:50 UK
Global warming: help or hindrance?
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter

Arctic icebergs
Icebergs make it difficult to operate in the Arctic
The Prince of Wales deems climate change the "greatest challenge to face man", and according to a warning this week global warming is making the world's poor even worse off. But can it also help to create fresh wealth?

Climate change - whether manmade or natural - is seen by some as a boon to business in the Arctic region, where adventurous capitalists are desperate to obtain access to resources that are uncovered as the ice retreats.

"For decades, this was a frozen region, literally and politically," says Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Stoere - referring both to the Cold War and to the thawing of the polar ice in the Barents Sea.

"In the years to come, it may be from this High North that both continental Europe and the United States will be looking for additional supplies of oil and gas."

Currently, Europe and the US make up for more than half the world's gas and oil consumption, but demand from other countries is rising.

"Energy demand is [also] expected to grow very fast in China and India," adds Norwegian petroleum and energy minister Odd Roger Enoksen, in an interview with the BBC News website.

The search is on

The Arctic's commercial potential has sent most leading energy companies scurrying into harsh and remote areas in North America, Russia's Siberia and the Barents Sea - all parts of a region that is believed to contain as much as a quarter of the world's undiscovered reserves of oil and gas.

Lord Browne, chief executive, BP
BP chief Lord Browne believes vast investment is key

"Obviously, we are doing a lot in Alaska, and depending on how you define the Arctic, we are doing a lot in Russia," Lord Browne, chief executive of BP, tells the BBC News website.

Last week, the US Senate Energy Committee voted to open for oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - despite fierce protests by environmentalists.

In the Barents Sea, meanwhile, the next goal is to develop oil fields, in addition to existing gas fields - again, in spite of protests by both environmentalists and the region's important fisheries industry.

"There have already been discoveries both on the Norwegian and the Russian side," Helge Lund, chief executive of the Norwegian energy giant Statoil, tells the BBC News website.

Harsh environment

But the warmer climate is proving to be a mixed blessing, even for businesses that stand to gain.

Washington protest to keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off-limits to oil drilling
Environmentalists worry about the push into the Arctic region

Climate change has done little to improve the Arctic region's harsh climate. Winter storms, coming at a time of the year when ship and rig crews operate in virtually perpetual darkness, are set to become even more prevalent than before.

"These regions are categorised by extreme weather conditions and sea water temperatures below freezing points," observes Mr Lund.

Indeed, although the warmer weather may be doing much to open up new shipping routes and bluewater ports, it has also led to an increase - not a decrease - in the frequency of icebergs.

"The icebergs can rip up pipelines and production facilities and everything else that gets in their way," says Rasmus Sunde, executive vice president of Vetco, a supplier to the oil industry.

Drilling for oil in an area where million-tonne icebergs are drifting at speeds of up to 900 metres an hour, only to be overtaken by large sheets of ice sometimes drifting four times as fast, is a serious challenge.

Floating drilling platforms, or drilling barges, of the kind used in the North Sea and elsewhere in the world, cannot be used under such conditions, so fixed installations are required, Mr Sunde tells the BBC News website.

Conditions are no easier in Siberia and Alaska, where any thawing of the permafrost makes it more difficult to transport heavy kit over the tundra, and where temperature swings that cause the ice to move threaten to destabilise oil and gas pipelines.

Expensive operations

All this is pushing up costs.

Arctic crews are scarce, skilled and expensive, ice breakers or ice secured tankers even more so.

High oil and gas prices are necessary to secure a non-Opec increase in supply
Norwegian energy minister Odd Roger Enoksen

Ship builders - keen to cash in on the boom by making ice strengthened oil and gas tankers, freight ships or ice breakers - say such vessels can cost several million dollars more than conventional bluewater ships.

And as Arctic miners, fishermen and ship operators have always known, there is inevitably a lot of inactivity for kit and crew, with plenty of waiting time due to the unpredictable nature of the work and the weather.

Insurance costs are also much higher for Arctic operators, not least because of the potential size of liability claims they could face if things go wrong, for example in the case of a production or transportation accident that turns into an environmental tragedy.

Energy security

Given that "oil and gas exploitation will become more demanding in the future", the industry will need massive capital injections in the next 30 years to meet an anticipated 60% rise in demand by 2030, says Mr Lund.

"All the easy barrels are already produced," he says. "Significant investment is necessary."

A whopping annual $560bn (314bn) cash injection will be required in the years ahead, estimates Lord Browne.

Statoil LNG tanker
Gas from the Barents Sea is set to reduce US reliance on Opec

And it is likely that the investment is forthcoming - in part from commercial operators eyeing great returns, but also from governments keen to curb the dominance of the Opec cartel of oil producing nations.

The George W Bush administration's plan to extract billions of barrels of crude oil in Alaska is a clear indication of a growing desire by the West to reduce its dependence on the energy reserves in the Middle East.

In addition, gas from Russian and Norwegian fields in the Barents Sea will also soon be shipped to the US in giant LNG tankers.

In Europe, a new gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea will bring Russian gas to Germany, while the UK is set to receive up to a fifth of its gas through a soon-to-be-opened giant pipeline from a Norwegian field.

The search, which focuses on ever "smaller and more difficult pockets" of oil and gas, should secure supplies for decades, believes Tom Botts, vice president in charge of Shell's European exploration and production operations.

But it is also likely to mean consumers will have to pay dearly for energy in the future.

"High oil and gas prices are necessary to secure a non-Opec increase in supply," observes Mr Enoksen.

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