Arctic mega-mine in rush for ‘white gold’

Steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal has bought mining rights for a huge iron ore deposit in Canada's arctic North. It's the latest attempt to exploit the untold riches of Earth's last frontier.

The frozen islands of Nunavut are desolate and magnificent, stretching fingers of icy rock northward into the Arctic Ocean. Human settlement is sparse – polar bears, caribou, seals and arctic foxes share the jagged landscape.

But the silence of this extraordinary wilderness will soon be broken. Britain’s richest man, the steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, has spent £373 million to take control of massive deposits of iron ore that have been discovered near Nunavut’s Mary River.

Already, miners’ camps have sprung up along the coast, but these are only the vanguard. If Mittal’s plans go ahead, an army of more than 2,000 workmen will descend on the region to lay hundreds of miles of road and rail track. There will be an airstrip and two ports, where huge container ships will dock to load up with precious minerals.

Variations on this story are being repeated all around the Arctic Circle. As global warming shrinks the polar ice, new territories are being opened up for miners and oil drillers – and they are excited by what they find. As much as 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil may lie in polar waters – some 90 billion barrels of crude as well as 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Energy companies call it a new hydrocarbon frontier.

Gold and precious metals also lie undisturbed beneath the tundra, along with more exotic resources like uranium and so-called ‘rare earths’ which are used in high tech products. The total value of arctic resources is impossible even to guess at, but will run into the trillions.

Where there is wealth, there is competition. Countries around the Arctic Circle claim broad bands of sea off their own coastlines, but the ocean around the North Pole itself is international water. Bitter disputes have broken out over how to divide this unclaimed territory. In 2007, a Russian submarine even planted a national flag on the seabed under the pole, to emphasise Russia’s claim to the region.

The other set of claimants are the Arctic’s native Inuit peoples. Their ancient way of life is threatened by mines and oilrigs but those same projects also offer jobs, wages and access to some of the luxuries of modern life which a traditional existence could never provide.

Threatened wilderness

The dilemma of the Inuit people is reflected in a wider question: should we be exploiting the Arctic at all? It is one of our last unspoilt wildernesses, teeming with wildlife, which could be decimated by any chemical leak or oil spill.

On the other hand, the world’s demand for raw materials keeps growing. Unless we’re prepared to make serious cuts to our consumption, the days of the untouched Arctic will soon be over.

You Decide

  1. What is the right balance between protecting the environment and extracting natural resources? Is Arctic drilling and mining a good or bad thing?
  2. Countries are divided over who owns the seabed under the North Pole. Should anyone own the North Pole? Who?

Activities

  1. Create a piece of art, a song or a poem inspired by the landscape and nature of the Arctic Circle.
  2. Divide into groups, with one person taking the role of an oil or mining company, one playing a government minister, one playing an Inuit representative and one playing an environmentalist. Each should present their own concerns and try to work out a policy for Arctic mining and drilling.

Some People Say...

“Human life is much more important than wildlife.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why haven't these resources been exploited before?
Global warming is one reason. Many mineral deposits were previously covered by ice all year round. As the world keeps heating up, more and more mining sites will be exposed.
Anything else?
New technology is helping oil companies to drill in deeper water than ever before. It's expensive, but oil prices have climbed dramatically as production peaks elsewhere and world demand grows. That means hard to reach oil reservoirs are suddenly much more attractive.
Isn't deep water drilling dangerous?
It is. The terrible Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010 was caused by an accident on a deep-water rig. An oil spill in the Arctic would be disastrous for wildlife.

Word Watch

Nunavut
A northern province of Canada. It is largely uninhabited.
Caribou
Caribou, known in Europe as reindeer, are members of the deer family which are found all over the Arctic
Crude
Crude oil, or 'crude' for short, is unrefined oil that is extracted from the ground. Crude oil is refined to become petrol, plastics and other chemicals.
Hydrocarbon
A chemical term for fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas, which are composed of chains of carbon and hydrogen.
Tundra
Tundra is a landscape which occurs around the Arctic Circle, where high winds and low temperatures prevent trees from growing.
Rare earths
A group of unusual chemical elements which are used in high tech products.

Subjects

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