The first-ever comprehensive assessment of Arctic oil and gas deposits reveals that 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas could be trapped beneath the far north’s barren land and icy waters. The potential resources are unlikely to alter world trends in oil and gas trade, however, and will probably keep Russia the king of natural gas for years to come.
Because of the Arctic’s remote location and harsh environment, oil and gas exploration has been limited to just a few areas off the coasts of northern countries, such as the United States and Russia. But dwindling oil reserves (expected to peak in production by about 2020), waning opportunities for exploration elsewhere, and the melting of sea ice have recently made the Arctic a more attractive option. But just how much does the Arctic have to offer?
About 5 years ago, geologist Donald Gautier of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, California, and his colleagues decided to find out. First, they created a geological map of the Arctic to identify sedimentary rocks, which have the potential to carry oil and gas. Then they subdivided the rocks into specific groups based on their geologic properties and compared them with groups elsewhere in the world known to contain oil and gas.

The researchers report online today in Science that the Arctic likely contains about 83 billion barrels of undiscovered oil. That represents about 4% of the world’s remaining conventional oil and enough to sustain global demand for almost 3 years. At the same time, the Arctic probably contains about 1550 trillion cubic feet of natural gas–enough to meet world demand for about 14 years. Most of the resources lie offshore under less than 500 meters of water, which means they are accessible to drilling.
Photo shows the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (background). It could be in business for years to come carrying the oil predicted to exist off Alaska’s coast.