OTTAWA (Reuters) - Unrest in the Middle East means the potential oil riches in Arctic areas like Greenland are more important than ever, the island’s premier said on Wednesday, criticizing environmental groups that want to hamper exploration.
Greenland, which enjoys self-rule as part of the Kingdom of Denmark, has issued 20 licenses for oil and gas exploration in Baffin Bay on its West coast.
Some estimates put Greenland’s offshore oil reserves at 20 billion barrels.
“There is a very strong focus on the Arctic ... especially nowadays because of the richness of natural resources. The very last days’ developments in the Middle East of course put more (emphasis) on this focus,” said Greenland Premier Kuupik Kleist, referring to instability in Libya.
“We are of course influenced and also highly affected by what’s happening on world markets,” he told an Ottawa conference on the Arctic.
Speaking separately, Greenland’s industry and mineral resources minister, Ove Karl Berthelsen, said exploration licenses for blocks in the Greenland Sea to the east would be auctioned in 2012 and 2013.
Firms with licenses include U.S.-based ConocoPhillips and Exxon, Canada’s Encana, Norway’s Statoil, France’s GDF Suez, Britain’s Cairn Energy, Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Denmark’s Maersk and DONG Energy, and Greenland’s national oil company Nunaoil.
Although environmental groups say the Baffin Bay exploration blocks are particularly vulnerable to oil spills and should be kept off limits, Kleist made it clear there is no turning back.
“If Greenland should stay away from exploiting its mineral resources, some other place on Earth will do it. That’s for sure,” he later told reporters.
Greenland, dependent on the fishing industry and funding from Denmark, says it needs the money to cope with pressing social needs.
“For Greenland, the status quo is not an option. We are faced with big huge challenges in all areas — social, educational, health, infrastructure,” said Kleist.
The Greenland government says while there are risks to offshore drilling, modern technology mean the dangers are much lower than in the past.
Last year, Greenpeace protesters boarded a drilling rig operated by Cairn Energy to highlight what they said were the dangers of a spill in one of the world’s most remote regions.
“You see environmental groups coming now to the Arctic area and trying to hinder activities conducted by indigenous governments... Why didn’t they do that like 100 years ago, 50 years ago or even just 15 years ago?” said Kleist.
“I think Greenpeace has a lot of work to do in other places in the world. Greenland is not the most dangerous place.”
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson