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The Low Ground

IN AUGUST 2007, a Russian explorer named Artur Chilingarov led an expedition to the bottom of the North Pole. The two-and-a-half-mile descent marked man’s first visit to the polar floor, and, before ascending, the submarine jammed a titanium Russian flag into the seabed. It was a bold, reckless mission, as the thick Arctic ice made resurfacing a gamble. Chilingarov was awarded the title Hero of the Russian Federation for the feat, but the Russians were after more than bragging rights: they wanted to claim territory.

In fact, Chilingarov was seeking evidence. According to a U.N. convention, a coastal nation controls a zone two hundred miles off its shoreline, called an “exclusive economic zone,” (EEZ) within which it may exploit all natural resources. Although the North Pole is outside Russia’s EEZ, the law also says a nation may claim the area along its “outer continental shelf” even if it extends beyond two hundred miles. For a country to claim a distant shelf, however, it must prove that the shelf extends that far.

Michael T. Klare uses Chilingarov’s story to illustrate both the contradictions in the law and the increasingly bold manner in which nations are staking out territory to scavenge for the world’s remaining energy resources. The Arctic is proving particularly contentious. As climate change melts the ice caps and allows for exploration, the Arctic powers—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the U.S.—are aggressively laying claim to an area estimated to contain one-fifth of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas. Britain and Argentina are quarreling over resources near the Falkland Islands. China and Japan are embroiled in a dispute over natural gas in the East China Sea. Malaysia and Indonesia are squaring off over deposits in the Celebes Sea. And long dormant Alaskan border disputes among the United States, Canada, and Russia are stirring again.

With its tales of rising tensions and shrinking resources, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources possesses an apocalyptic sense of urgency. It is a sweeping account of the world’s energy dilemma, and a plea for the United States, which has fallen to third place in clean energy investment, to lead the globe toward a sustainable future. While the book would have benefited from a broader discussion of Obama administration policies, it adds important context to America’s recent strides toward energy independence. Since our focus remains on finite, hydrocarbon-based, environmentally damaging sources, is such independence really worth pursuing?

Klare’s premise is that the world has already tapped its largest, most easily accessible energy deposits, and they are dwindling fast. He cites an International Energy Agency report from 2008 that found that the output of the world’s ten biggest oil fields has plummeted 30 percent. As demand rises, troublesome new global realities have emerged: an increase in hazardous deepwater drilling; a growing reliance on “dirty” oil such as Canada’s tar sands; environmental damage wreaked by accessing unconventional oils and natural gas trapped in shale rock; land grabs by rich countries in anticipation of food shortages; and threats of military confrontation.

While the most pressing concern is oil (one-third of global energy still comes from it), the pattern holds true for most resources. As Klare notes, “Merely replacing the lost output from exhausted deposits will require a major effort of exploration and development, while achieving any further growth will demand a truly unprecedented and often perilous undertaking.” He adds that “the only hope for finding more oil, natural gas, minerals, and farmland will lie in extending the search to previously inaccessible or inhospitable areas.”

He offers the examples of Brazil’s Tupi reservoir and Canada’s tar sands. Though the Tupi deposits may contain fifty billion barrels of oil, they lie below four miles of ocean, salt, and rock. The Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred in just mile-deep water, so extracting petroleum from Tupi “will require even more technological virtuosity than that employed in the Gulf of Mexico”—greatly increasing the risk of similar disasters and environmental devastation.

The construction of the Keystone pipeline sparked ire from environmentalists because the petroleum in Alberta is actually bitumen: a mixture of petroleum, sand, and clay. To extract it, the bitumen must either be mined or liquefied underground, both of which are expensive, energy intensive, and ecologically damaging methods. Open-pit mining is already denuding the region. Klare describes the previously pristine forest as “a blackened moonscape, with enormous man-made craters that can be seen from space sitting alongside vast piles of discarded rock and pools of poisonous wastewater.”

In Africa, meanwhile, wealthy nations are plundering the continent’s arable land in addition to clashing over its oil and minerals. Klare tells of Saudi Arabia, China, and others buying vast swaths of land to maintain food supplies for swelling populations. While the deals may seem mutually beneficial, they rarely result in internal development, often just enriching corrupt dictators. And they are occurring in countries with hungry populations, like Ethiopia, or in regions where the land had been used by indigenous tribes for hunting. Tragically, Western investors view cropland as a profitable commodity. Klare laments: “For these banks, hedge funds, and other investors, land shortages are just another way to make a profit, and the risks of hunger and starvation in the developing world” are disregarded.

In addition to a discussion of Obama’s policies, The Race for What’s Left would have benefited from a discussion of the policies of Carter and Reagan. Klare has written extensively about these men elsewhere, but their policies hold particular relevance to his thesis here.

The Carter Doctrine, for instance, committed the United States to attacking any nation that threatened its Middle Eastern oil supply. But Carter also warned about rampant consumerism sparking future energy crises, and he asked Americans to conserve with an eye toward a sustainable future. As a symbol of his commitment to renewables, he attached solar panels to the White House roof. When Reagan took office, he quickly reversed Carter’s policies, gutted environmental regulations and, foretelling his commitment to oil, removed the panels. It was a watershed moment in American energy policy: the United States decided, in essence, to punt the hard work of building a sustainable future to distant generations.

Klare concludes that our only choice is to start a new race: “a contest to become among the first to adapt new materials, methods and devices that will free the world from finite resources.” Obama’s “all of the above” policy will not achieve this, yet even his modest efforts toward sustainability have been too vigorous for some. While China’s autocrats mandated that 15 percent of its energy come from renewables by 2020, America continues to handicap itself. In May, The Guardian obtained a strategy memo by a right-wing American think-tank that advised “subversion” of Obama’s investment in renewables. It suggested targeting American wind power in particular. The United States currently gets 0.4 percent of its energy from wind. If this is a race, we are off to a poor start.

Jake Whitney is a journalist in New York and contributing writer for Guernica: A Magazine of Art and Politics.