The forbidding landscape of the Arctic contains 13 per cent of the world's remaining undiscovered oil and as much as 30 per cent of its natural gas deposits, a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey says.
The updated estimates of the North's promising oil and gas resources come as Canada and its polar neighbours aggressively pursue their competing claims to vast areas of continental shelf under the Arctic Ocean.
The estimate of major oil reserves off North America's northern coast will also increase pressure to open the region to more oil and gas development, adding fuel to the debate over the U.S. government's refusal to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The report was carried in this month's Science magazine and billed as the "first detailed, peer-reviewed geologically based assessment of natural resources in the region."
In it, a team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists estimate that the Arctic contains 80 billion barrels of oil, or 13 per cent of the estimated undiscovered global resource, with the largest single field off Alaska.
Alaska currently produces more than 700,000 barrels of crude a day, but that figure is expected to decline rapidly without new discoveries.
"The Alaskan platform is already a well-known petroleum-producing area; new discoveries there could maintain the flow of Alaskan oil for many years to come," the report said.
"Oil discoveries in the other areas could change the economic landscape and way of life of local inhabitants."
It added, however, that the estimates are not large enough to shift the world oil balance, but would merely produce incremental barrels for the world markets for many decades.
The more dramatic wealth of the Arctic lies in natural gas resources. The Geological Survey estimates that the region contains three times as much undiscovered natural gas as crude oil, on an energy-equivalent basis.
That estimate underscores the push by Canada and the United States to build natural gas pipelines from the Mackenzie Delta and north shore of Alaska, respectively, to bring production from current discoveries to market.
"Although substantial amounts of gas may be found in Alaska, Canada and Greenland, the undiscovered gas resource is concentrated in Russian territory, and its development would reinforce the pre-eminent strategic position of that country," the report said.
The rush for resources has created political tension in the region.
In March, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon warned Russia that Canada would not be bullied into ceding sovereignty in the North after reports that Moscow had created a military force dedicated to defending Arctic claims.
Both countries - along with the United States and Denmark - are surveying the region to support territorial claims to the continental shelf that are being made under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Those claims must be submitted by 2013.