Protecting the Arctic

Written evidence submitted by The Geological Society of London

1. The Geological Society is the national learned and professional body for geoscience, with over 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant geoscience, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-technical audiences.

2. To address directly many of the specific questions which the committee has set out in its call for evidence is outside the competence of the Geological Society. This submission focuses on those geoscientific considerations which should inform consideration of the potential impact of present and future Arctic hydrocarbon resources on global energy supplies, on UK energy security, and on the environment. There are undoubtedly significant hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic region – the Geological Society would be pleased to provide further advice regarding what is known about these resources, the distribution of both oil and gas, their exploration and production, and prospects for mitigation of environmental impacts. It is for others to determine whether they should be exploited, and what the regulatory framework should be for both exploration and production.

3. The main points addressed below are:

· The likely extent of known and unknown hydrocarbon resources

· The distinction between resources and economic reserves

· Geological evidence of past rapid climate change associated with major releases of CO2

· The potential role of carbon capture and storage in abatement of CO2 emissions

· The prospect of new technologies to mitigate other environmental impacts

4. The estimation and characterisation of hydrocarbon resources under the Arctic Ocean and the surrounding onshore areas is the subject of extensive research. A major recent Geological Society publication on Arctic Petroleum Geology (Spencer et al, 2011) brings together 50 papers authored by scientists from across the circum-Arctic nations, working in industry, academia and national geological surveys. It constitutes a state-of-the-art assessment of Arctic geology; known hydrocarbon resources; prospectivity and potential for development of as yet unknown resources; and techniques for surveying, exploration and resource assessment in high latitudes. The publication builds on symposia held at the most recent International Geological Congress (IGC33), held in Oslo in 2008, which focused particularly on Arctic geoscience – not just in relation to oil and gas, but also, for instance, to data from the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme which provided new insights into the past role of the Arctic Ocean in the Earth’s climate system. Arctic hydrocarbon resources have also been the subject of a number of US Geological Survey (USGS) reports over the last few years.

5. Spencer et al (2011) states known hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic as 61Bbbl (billion barrels) of liquids (i.e. oil plus natural gas liquids) and 269 Bbbloe (billion barrels of oil equivalent) of gas, in nine main areas. It gives the USGS best estimate of yet-to-find resources as 90 Bbbl of liquids and 279 Bbbloe of gas, and identifies four main regions in which such resources are expected predominantly to be found. Overall, the USGS estimates the Arctic to contain between 44 and 157 Bbbl of recoverable oil. This is sufficient for the Arctic to constitute a major hydrocarbon province, which probably includes the greatest as yet unknown resource remaining in the world – but is unlikely to shift the world oil balance away from the Middle East. However, it is the estimated vast gas resources particularly offshore Arctic Russia that dominate. The USGS estimate of 2000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, if correct, would represent over one fifth of the world’s undiscovered gas resources. (Gautier et al, 2009). USGS Fact Sheet 2008-3049 gives a good introduction to its methodology for resource appraisal, including its estimation of unknown resources.

6. A key concept in economic geology is the distinction between resources (the total amount in the ground) and reserves (the amount of a resource which can economically be extracted with current technology and under current regulatory regimes). Reserves estimates are therefore dynamic, and depend on several factors, including price which, alongside cost of extraction, determines whether this can be done economically. There are particular constraints and challenges to economic exploration and production of oil and gas in the Arctic. There is a great quantity of ice, but its distribution varies from year to year, as well as seasonally. It is also mobile, rotating clockwise around the pole at perhaps 3 m/h (metres per hour), and producing hazardous icebergs which represent a significant technological challenge to placing of permanent installations. Nonetheless, a sufficiently high barrel price is likely to make these challenges economically surmountable.

7. The geological record contains abundant evidence of the ways in which Earth’s climate has changed in the past. There is evidence of a sudden major injection of carbon to the atmosphere 55 million years ago, which was accompanied by rapid warming of about 6°C globally, and 10-20°C at the poles. The oceans became warmer, less well oxygenated and more acidic, and many species became extinct. Similar rapid warming events associated with sudden carbon releases are known from the more distant past, for example at around 120 and 183 million years ago. Increased CO2 levels are likely to have been the trigger for these events, though not the sole agent for change (various feedback loops operate). Human emissions of CO2 in the industrial era are at a comparable rate to the release 55 million years ago, and to date these amount to perhaps a third of the total released at that time. A position statement published by the Geological Society in November 2010 provides a non-technical introduction to this geological evidence, which stands independent of that derived from present day atmospheric and oceanic sampling and climate modelling. This statement concludes that emitting further large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere is likely to be unwise (Geological Society, 2010).

8. In the short term, we will continue to be highly dependent on fossil fuels both nationally and globally, whether or not Arctic resources are developed. The rapid deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) at commercial scale is a critical requirement if further extensive CO2 emissions are to be abated. The UK is well positioned to be a world leader in the development and deployment of CCS, thanks to the outstanding fusion of our academic and industrial petroleum geoscience, not least through the meetings and publications of the Geological Society. The skills, capacity and infrastructure inherent in the North Sea oil and gas industry are extraordinarily valuable assets in this regard. The Earth science community is confident in its abilities to meet the challenges of the injection and long-term storage of CO2, and with the right regulatory framework to develop a UK CCS industry on the scale of the North Sea hydrocarbons extraction industry of the past four decades.

9. If there is to be extensive exploration and production of hydrocarbons in the Arctic Ocean beneath both permanent and seasonal ice, new technologies will have to be developed and implemented. Research is also underway to develop more efficient exploration practices, improved reservoir geology and engineering, and novel downhole processing technologies. These technologies include methods for subsurface separation and conversion of oil and gas within wells, producing clean energy sources such as hydrogen and syn-gas at the surface, which are already working at the laboratory level. Their deployment at commercial scale would not only greatly reduce carbon emissions, but would also minimise the risk of other environmental impacts on the Arctic such as those arising from oil spills.

10. We would be pleased to discuss further any of the points raised in this submission, to provide more detailed information, or to suggest oral witnesses and other specialist contacts.


Gautier D., Bird K. J., et al. (2009) Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas in the Arctic. Science 324 :1175–1179.

Geological Society position statement ‘Climate change: evidence from the geological record’, 2010. Available at:

Spencer, A.M., Embry, A.F., Gautier, D.L., Stoupakova, A.V. & Sørensen, K. (eds) 2011. Arctic Petroleum Geology. Geological Society, London, Memoirs, 35

USGS Fact Sheet 2008-3049, 2008. Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle. Available at:

23 February 2012

Prepared 20th March 2012