The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there are roughly 90 billion barrels of maybe-possibly-who-knows "recoverable" oil in the Arctic circle, and even more natural gas lurking beneath the ice—we're talking one-fifth of the world's as-yet-undiscovered oil and gas reserves.
That's not to say break out the champagne, our petroleum woes are solved—far from it. Even if all that oil could be extracted tomorrow (and it can't be), the world would get an extra three-year's supply of petroleum at today's consumption rates. In reality, Arctic oil will trickle out very slowly: As one USGS geologist told The Wall Street Journal, "It will not ratchet up global production like a new Saudi Arabia… These are additions that will come over time." And drilling in the Arctic will be far pricier than getting oil in the Middle East. The natural gas deposits look to be a bigger deal, but, all told, Andy Revkin's assessment in the Times looks spot on:
The Arctic energy report, then, perhaps supports the assertions of those saying that the world will not be able to drill its way out of the oil crunch in the long run, and that, with or without considering global warming, we must eventually shift to electrified transportation and renewable farmed fuels for sectors like aviation that can’t plug in.
As for petroleum, while increased scarcity and demand will spur people to drive less, in smaller cars, it will also guarantee the expansion of drilling farther toward the ends of the Earth and deeper in ocean basins. Drilling there is ridiculously hard, and costly, so it will be the last place to be sucked dry. Just review how hard it was simply to extract one 1,200-foot-long core of sea bed near the North Pole in 2004.
There's also the not-overly-hilarious irony that global warming is now making it easier for oil companies to get at those reserves, as the greenhouse effect continues to fry up all that Arctic sea ice, which has so far made it incredibly dicey to set up exploratory wells or even get good seismic data. Meanwhile, many of the reserves are smack in the middle of areas subject to territorial dispute: No wonder the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark are all scrambling to make land grabs up north...