Greenlanders Divided On Arctic Oil, Gas Exploration

The fast-changing world is in cringing on the Arctic. Companies are exploring for minerals and oil and gas reserves. People in Greenland are watching anxiously – wondering what this means for them. There are environmental concerns but hopes that oil revenue would help the economy.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

All this week we're looking at a fast-changing region of the world: the Arctic. Global warming's opening the door to that unspoiled wilderness. The Arctic is believed to have vast oil and gas reserves and other mineral riches as well, and mineral companies are out there looking for them as we speak. The region's people are watching anxiously, wondering whether this search for energy will change the way they live.

NPR's Philip Reeves went to Greenland and filed the latest story in our Arctic series.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

PHILIP REEVES: Johannes Mathaussen's carving a path across the ocean. He carefully steers past an iceberg. There are hundreds of these, like enormous frozen wedding cakes, meandering along beneath a gloomy sky. These steel-gray waters are 190 miles inside the Arctic Circle. Mathaussen's fished and hunted around here all his life. He's seen firsthand the impact global warming's making on the Arctic.

Mr. JOHANNES MATHAUSSEN: (Through translator) It is amazing - fish we never used to see up here in the north are now appearing here because the water's warmer.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

REEVES: Small shards of ice hammer on the bottom of Mathaussen's boat. He sucks on his pipe and remembers what it used to be like here.

Mr. MATHAUSSEN: (Through translator) The ice on the sea used to be really thick in the winter. Now it's very thin.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

REEVES: Mathaussen cautiously inches his tiny boat into the shadow of an iceberg. It looms above him. A waterfall's gushing down its flank. Listen to the Arctic melt, says Mathaussen.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

REEVES: This is Disko Bay, off the west coast of Greenland. This remote place is now in the crosshairs of the world's giant mineral companies.

Mr. BEN AYLIFFE (Greenpeace): It is a crucial juncture for Greenland because we're seeing increasing rates of ice melt and global warming and yet more and more big companies lining up to extract more and more of the fossil fuels that are causing the melting in the first place.

REEVES: Ben Ayliffe is from Greenpeace.

Mr. AYLIFFE: Okay, go.

REEVES: Earlier this year, Greenpeace activists in inflatable dinghies raced out across the sea to target one of these companies. They climbed onto a drilling rig being operated by a British-based company, Cairn Energy. This year and last, Cairn's been exploring for oil off west Greenland.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

REEVES: Plenty of other heavyweights share Cairn's interest in the potential riches for these Greenland seas. Shell, Exxon-Mobil and Chevron are among those with licenses to explore.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

REEVES: Only 56,000 people live in Greenland. Most are indigenous Inuits. Their economy's heavily dependent on fishing. About a quarter of the population lives here, in Greenland's tiny capital, Nuuk. Here, people view the prospect of an oil rush with mixed feelings.

Ms. NAAJA NATHANIELSEN: I am definitely pro-drilling. I also have, of course, in my mental concerns, we need to do this properly, because we can't afford a major catastrophe.

REEVES: That's Naaja Nathanielsen, a member of Greenland's governing party. The island needs the oil revenues, she says.

Ms. NATHANIELSEN: We have a very small economy as it is right now. We have more and more elder people, less young people. Our health care system needs development; our educational system needs money. We also want to take care of all kinds of patients. I mean, it all costs money.

REEVES: This issue is about a lot more than money though. For more than two and a half centuries, Greenland was ruled by Denmark, several thousand miles away. In 1979, Greenland acquired limited autonomy, then two years ago it won a lot more by securing self-rule after a referendum. Greenland's now in charge of its own mineral resources, yet Denmark still has ultimate control over several key levers of power: defense and foreign affairs.

Many Greenlanders crave total independence. They hope an oil and minerals boom will secure it. Among them is Alega Hammond, leader of Greenland's biggest opposition party.

Ms. ALEGA HAMMOND: It's a natural thought for any country and for any people to be independent.

REEVES: To acquire true independence, Greenland must wean itself off subsidies from Denmark. It gets an annual grant from the Danes - this year the equivalent of $625 million. Greenland and Denmark have agreed this grant will steadily reduce once there are significant oil and mineral revenues. What happens after that, when there's enough income to completely cover the ground? Would Denmark be willing to let Greenland pocket any further other oil riches and become totally independent?

Maliina Abelsen, Greenlands finance minister, says there'd have to be more negotiations, though she isn't sure how they'd turn out.

Ms. MALIINA ABELSEN (Finance Minister, Greenland): I don't know how the negotiations would be, but I know that most of the Danes also want independence for Greenland.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

REEVES: The hunger for independence for Greenland has even reached this distant place, the little Arctic town of Ilulissat, tucked between the sea and the gigantic icecap that covers most of the island.

(Soundbite of chatter)

REEVES: Down in the harbor, Claus Rasmussen's preparing his boat for a night long-lining for halibut under the midnight summer sun. Rasmussen knows all about the search for oil just at the horizon. He does worry about a big oil spill, but with proper safety precautions, he favors drilling.

Mr. CLAUS RASMUSSEN: (Through translator) It would be great if we could earn money from oil. Greenland has a very small population and we could get rich.

REEVES: Rasmussen used to go out by dogsled in the wintertime to fish through holes in the frozen sea. He can't do that anymore because the ice is too thin.

(Soundbite of dogs barking)

REEVES: Several thousand sled dogs - all Huskies - are idling around town, chained up outside, facing an uncertain future thanks to global warming.

Ms. LENE KIELSEN HOLM: I have been traveling with planes and with small boat and on dogsleds.

REEVES: That's Lene Kielsen Holm.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: She's traveled Greenland's coast, talking with Inuit hunters and fishermen in tiny settlements as part of a government-funded research project.

Ms. HOLM: They are telling me a lot of things. It seems that everything is changing - the humidity of the air, the currents of the ocean, the temperature of the ocean and the salinity even.

REEVES: Holm, herself an Inuit, doesn't like the idea this Arctic warming could open the door to big oil companies. The possibility that this might also bring independence for Greenland doesn't sway her.

Ms. HOLM: When we are only 57,000 in a very, very, very big island, I think we have to question whether it is sovereignty that we need.

REEVES: The prospect of a great Arctic oil rush worries her deeply.

Ms. HOLM: I'm scared. I'm really scared about it. I can foresee that this could destroy our culture.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: And tomorrow Philip will explore some of Greenland's other natural resources: diamonds, precious metals and rare minerals. Tapping these resources would mean jobs and money, but some worry about what it might do to the environment and the country's Inuit culture. You can find all the stories from our Race to the Arctic series at our website, NPR.org.

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