Saudi Arabia with Eskimos

Greenland’s ice may hide fabulous wealth.

T he largest island in the world has always wielded a powerful allure. Greenland’s landscapes are breathtaking, but it’s certainly not its aesthetic beauty that is currently focusing global interests on the country. What’s at stake here is its natural and potentially enormous resources. According to US Geological Survey estimates, Northeastern Greenland could harbour around 31.4 billion barrels of oil equivalent (gas, oil and natural gas liquids).

Another study estimates the oil fields in the province of East Canada-West Greenland hold up to 7.3 billion barrels. For Brussels, the island has “strong potential in six of the 14 elements on the EU critical raw materials list,” such as niobium and tantalum. “It is believed that Greenland has a wealth of mineral resources, including iron, gold, lead, zinc, rare earths and rubies.

The most interesting energy resource is probably oil,” explains Tim Boersma, head of the Energy Security Initiative of the Brookings Institution. “Extraction is hampered by the harsh environment and because of the lack of infrastructure.” Besides fossil fuels and minerals, “Greenland boasts vast water reserves, in the form of a huge ice sheet,” as Stephen Perry of the University of Namur in Belgium points out. 

As it turns out, 80% of the island’s surface is covered in ice. If the Arctic ice cap should melt due to global warming, there could be trouble. This is further confirmed by Laurence M. Smith, professor of geography at UCLA and author of The New North: Our World in 2050. He says: “Greenland’s ice sheet contains enough ice to raise the overall water level of the oceans by seven metres. The melting and/or slippage of even a small part of this ice could have a major impact on world coastlines.”

Global warming would also have consequences for the island itself, but they are unlikely to be particularly catastrophic. Potatoes can already be grown there, and Restaurant Roklubben in Kangerlussuaq is now serving greenhouse peppers and tomatoes alongside its musk ox hamburgers and reindeer casserole. But if in the coming years, the temperature should increase further, it won’t be just menus that improve. The inhospitable island that in the Middle Ages brought the Viking colonisers to their knees could partially be transformed into that promised land it’s always stood for: a green land.

The stakes are high, especially considering that Greenland stretches for 2.1 million square kilometres. Thawing would make life much easier for mining companies and energy giants such as BP, Shell, Statoil and Chevron, all with a foot already well planted on the island. The Greenlander’s dream is to become an Arctic El Dorado, much like Norway. Presently, however, the local economy is weak, and survives mainly on fishing and subsidies from Copenhagen. Many Greenlanders would like the island to become independent because, despite its autonomy and power to elect its own government, it is still part of Denmark.

“An independent Greenland is our natural future,” said then Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond in 2013. “But if we want greater autonomy from Denmark, we have to finance it ourselves. This means finding new sources of income.” For Hammond, the answer lies in the mining industry. Easier said than done. In autumn of 2014, the London Mining Company, which was supposed to open a vast iron mine in Greenland (thanks to Chinese investments), filed for bankruptcy.

“The economic forecasts are terrible,” explains Danish journalist Martin Breum. “Public spending is higher than the fishing revenue. The population is aging and too many young people leave. The promises of the energy and mining sectors have proven elusive, and there don’t seem to be any miraculous solutions on the horizon.”

For Tine Pars, rector of the University of Greenland, “The politicians must be patient on independence. In many ways, Greenland is a utopia, seeing as there are so few of us (56,000 people in total!). I do think we should aspire to self-determination.” Greenland’s economic and demographic weakness is a source of worry for Copenhagen. Danish experts fear that the island, once independent, will turn into an American ‘colony’.

Greenlanders see things differently. “We’re not a banana republic, however often the Danish press say otherwise. Greenland is a modern country with a young democracy,” says Mads Nordlund, editor-in-chief of Greenland Today. For Laurence Smith, “These days China is much more interested in Greenland than the US, which in general does not bother with the Arctic.” According to Mia Bennett, a doctoral student at UCLA and editor of the Cryopolitics blog, “The US already has significant military interests in Greenland [the Thule Air Force base] but few on an economic or political level.”

In the meantime, Greenland’s government ensures that it has no intention of selling itself off cheap: it wants to strengthen its position abroad and perhaps explore new types of partnerships with Brussels through the Association of the Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTA). We shall see. 

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