Oil and Gas

With a tenth of the world’s untapped resources, this is why oil companies are not drilling in the Arctic

A file photo of an offshore ice-resistant oil-producing platform.
Sergey Anisimov | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Low oil prices have caused international oil companies to think twice about investing in Arctic extraction, but with prices on the rise it is only a matter of time before businesses tap into what has long been considered the final frontier for energy resources, according to Eurasia Group.

So far this year, oil has been trading at slightly over $50 per barrel, up significantly from the lows of early 2016 but still well below the highs of around $115 per barrel seen in mid-2014.

"In this current oil price environment, it (Arctic drilling) is really not very feasible," Emily Stromquist, senior analyst at Eurasia Group, said.

"You're not looking at particularly great economics for Arctic projects as long as we stay in the $50 to $60 per barrel oil price range."

Petroleum exploration in the Artic is costly and technically complex, making it largely unviable for oil companies despite the region containing an estimated 13 percent of the world's untapped resources. Included in this could be as much as 90 billion barrels of oil, according to United States Geographical Survey estimates.

This is good news for policymakers and environmental activists who have been attempting to regulate drilling to manage potential oil spills and the displacement of indigenous communities.

Eurasia: $100B to be invested in Arctic in coming years

However, as supply continues to tighten and oil companies benefit from higher revenues, they are likely to start looking again at exploration work in the Arctic, said Stromquist.

"I would expect we continue to see that, especially as oil prices go up, companies start to look again at doing exploration work in the Arctic."

On Tuesday, OPEC and non-OPEC countries reiterated their commitment to uphold the terms of the production cut agreement reached late last year, which will remove 1.8 million barrels from the market and likely continue the upwards trend for oil prices.

The race to the Arctic is expected to be spearheaded by the Eastern hemisphere and particularly Russia, which Stromquist describes as a "unique case".

While the U.S. has benefitted from major efficiency gains in oil production during the lower oil price period, Russia, hampered by sanctions on the European continent, has moved forward in its bid to lay claim to new energy sources.

The Kremlin has attempted to make these new frontiers more viable for businesses by introducing tax breaks.

The Arctic region is claimed by Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S.

Member states are due to meet at the annual Arctic Council meeting in May to discuss regulatory standards and environmental issues. It is currently unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend.

"In addition to price, environmental protests have been a huge impediment for Arctic projects. Regulatory hurdles from governments and environmental protests are two of the biggest hurdles for companies involved in the Arctic, in addition to basis break even costs," added Stromquist.

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