Leave it to the Elves

By Lexi Hensley | Nov 29, 2012

The year is 1984 and the night is epic: it’s The Night They Saved Christmas. An all-American family comes to the rescue when a malevolent oil exploration company dabbling in the North Pole threatens to decimate Santa’s chilly oasis. This antithesis of a Hollywood blockbuster lacks a review by a serious critic. Perhaps, because the plot is, well, a bit inane.

Yet, nearly 30 years later, this narrative is still in play. At present, the North Pole — quite literally — couldn't be hotter. Santa’s home, sweet home is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. While the long-term effects of a melting Arctic promise to be catastrophic to our globe’s environmental status quo, there is a lining (your pick among silver, gold, copper or zinc): melting ice means easier access to the Arctic’s mineral-heavy core and, more strategically, an estimated 30 percent and 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered reserves of natural gas and oil, respectively. Such reserves have the potential to draw a global investment in offshore energy that exceeds $100 billion in the next decade.

Alas, at a time when the U.S. nurses concerns over dependence on foreign oil, it is the Arctic nation least excited about this prospect. Lack of enthusiasm stems from naysayers who condemn drilling’s detrimental effects on international security, the environment and indigenous cultures. While these concerns are valid, at times, they are inflated. A good dose of pragmatism would bestow a more appropriate indoor voice to the cries of alarm, which resemble the following:

Drilling will cause conflict among the Arctic powers!

While battles over resources conjure vivid images of posturing and tension, especially in a region with the distinction of being the shortest passage between the two Cold War nuclear arsenals, the field of international relations has reason to be optimistic about drilling in the Arctic. The largest potential source of conflict is nearly a moot point: far from the terra nullius (no man's land) many assume the Arctic to be, most of the territory is already demarcated and recognized by the United Nations, save the outer continental shelves which are a work in progress. Additionally, the Arctic Council, a regional forum created in 1996, shows great promise. Large potential profits and high regional operating costs incentivize members to cooperate, and so they have: the region has witnessed impressive collaborative efforts, including mapping, research and environmental protection among the big players (Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States). Besides, worrywarts over conflict shouldn’t forget — the North Pole is simply inundated with good cheer.

Oil spills will ruin the Arctic!

No one disputes the disastrous effect an uncontained oil spill would have on the precious Arctic ecosystem. The contaminative risks of resource development are material and the images of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills still tangible. Yet, the Arctic is among the most regulated of oil provinces. Additionally, the environment will remain hostile and technically difficult to access, making development expensive. The dual regulatory and environmental barriers will force the process to be painfully slow and overly cautious. Offshore production is likely 10-15 years off, allowing companies time to perfect technology and adequately prepare for potential incidents. Moreover, we’re dealing with masters of their craft — leave it to Santa’s elves to design a seamless drill.

Resource development infringes on indigenous cultures!

Although there are only 4 million souls living within the Arctic Circle, and indigenous cultures make up only 10 percent of the region’s population, they are the most heavily publicized because their way of life is being threatened — but not by drilling. Recall that late-arriving Westernization brought positive developments to the Arctic’s indigenous: technology and rights. Additionally, with the potential to add 10 percent to global oil supplies, development of the resource would be a huge boon to the Arctic economies into which indigenous communities are integrated. In Alaska, for instance, most Inuit have a share in local companies and receive several thousand dollars each year in dividends. When the sleds of Inuit hunters falter over thin ice, climate change is to blame; not oil exploration. If Santa needs to relocate his village, the move won’t be induced by drilling, but rather, by a melting ice cap. Lucky for him, there’s ample real estate in the South Pole.

Pessimists should redirect their energies from bashing Arctic drilling to combating climate change — that’s the real issue at hand. A melting Arctic promises to raise sea levels, disrupt oceanic mixing, and potentially destroy entire ecosystems. Their voices can be used constructively in two ways, 1) to inspire political will to take concrete climate-change action and 2) to keep oil companies on their toes as they develop a crucial resource for the human race under fragile conditions. Finally, drill-o-phobes should remember what we’re talking about here — it’s the North Pole. Have a little faith. This is where magic happens.

Lexi Hensley is a native of Belfast and an M.S. Global Affairs Candidate, Class of 2013, at New York University.

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