Breaking the Ice: Mapping a Changing Arctic
The Arctic is changing. As retreating ice cover makes this region more accessible, nations with Arctic real estate are thinking of developing these subzero landscapes and the resources below.
As the Arctic evolves, a vast amount of resources will become more accessible and longer shipping seasons will improve Arctic logistics. But with a changing climate and increased public pressure to limit resource development in environmentally sensitive regions, the future of northern economic activity is far from certain.
This week’s Chart of the Week shows the location of major oil and gas fields in the Arctic and the possible new trade routes through this frontier.
A Final Frontier for Undiscovered Resources?
Underneath the Arctic Circle lies massive oil and natural gas formations. The United States Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic contains approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and about 30% of its undiscovered natural gas resources.
So far, most exploration in the Arctic has occurred on land. This work produced the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in Alaska, the Tazovskoye Field in Russia, and hundreds of smaller fields, many of which are on Alaska’s North Slope, an area now under environmental protection.
Land accounts for about 1/3 of the Arctic’s area and is thought to hold about 16% of the Arctic’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas resources. A further 1/3 of the Arctic area is comprised of offshore continental shelves, which are thought to contain enormous amounts of resources but remain largely unexplored by geologists.
The remaining 1/3 of the Arctic is deep ocean waters measuring thousands of feet in depth.
The Arctic circle is about the same geographic size as the African continent─about 6% of Earth’s surface area─yet it holds an estimated 22% of Earth’s oil and natural gas resources. This paints a target on the Arctic for exploration and development, especially with shorter seasons of ice coverage improving ocean access.
Thawing Ice Cover: Improved Ocean Access, New Trading Routes
As Arctic ice melts, sea routes will stay navigable for longer periods, which could drastically change international trade and shipping. September ice coverage has decreased by more than 25% since 1979, although the area within the Arctic Circle is still almost entirely covered with ice from November to July.
|Northern Sea Route||4,740 Nautical Miles||6 weeks of open waters|
|Transpolar Sea Route||4,179 Nautical Miles||2 weeks of open waters|
|Northwest Passage||5,225 Nautical Miles||Periodically ice-free|
|Arctic Bridge||3,600 Nautical Miles||Ice-free|
Typically shipping to Japan from Rotterdam would use the Suez Canal and take about 30 days, whereas a route from New York would use the Panama Canal and take about 25 days.
But if the Europe-Asia trip used the Northern Sea Route along the northern coast of Russia, the trip would last 18 days and the distance would shrink from ~11,500 nautical miles to ~6,900 nautical miles. For the U.S.-Asia trip through the Northwest Passage, it would take 21 days, rather than 25.
Control of these routes could bring significant advantages to countries and corporations looking for a competitive edge.
Competing Interests: Arctic Neighbors
Eight countries lay claim to land that lies within the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark (through its administration of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.
There is no consistent agreement among these nations regarding the claims to oil and gas beneath the Arctic Ocean seafloor. However, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides each country an exclusive economic zone extending 200 miles out from its shoreline and up to 350 miles, under certain geological conditions.
Uncertain geology and politics has led to overlapping territorial disputes over how each nation defines and maps its claims based on the edge of continental margins. For example, Russia claims that their continental margin follows the Lomonosov Ridge all the way to the North Pole. In another, both the U.S. and Canada claim a portion of the Beaufort Sea, which is thought to contain significant oil and natural gas resources.
To Develop or Not to Develop
Just because the resources are there does not mean humans have to exploit them, especially given oil’s environmental impacts. Canada’s federal government has already returned security deposits that oil majors had paid to drill in Canadian Arctic waters, which are currently off limits until at least 2021.
In total, the Government of Canada returned US$327 million worth of security deposits, or 25% of the money oil companies pledged to spend on exploration in the Beaufort Sea. In addition, Goldman Sachs announced that it would not finance any projects in the U.S.’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The retreat of Western economic interests in the Arctic may leave the region to Russia and China, countries with less strict environmental regulations.
Russia has launched an ambitious plan to remilitarize the Arctic. Specifically, Russia is searching for evidence to prove its territorial claims to additional portions of the Arctic, so that it can move its Arctic borderline — which currently measures over 14,000 miles in length — further north.
In a changing Arctic, this potentially resource-rich region could become another venue for geopolitical tensions, again testing whether humans can be proper stewards of the natural world.
What’s Made from a Barrel of Oil?
Oil is a building block that makes modern life possible. Here are the proportion of finished products that are created from a barrel of oil.
What Products Are Made from a Barrel of Oil?
From the gasoline in our cars to the plastic in countless everyday items, crude oil is an essential raw material that shows up everywhere in our lives.
With around 18 million barrels of crude oil consumed every day just in America, this commodity powers transport, utilities, and is a vital ingredient in many of the things we use on a daily basis.
This graphic visualizes how much crude oil is refined into various finished products, using a barrel of oil to represent the proportional breakdown.
Barrel of Oil to Functional Fuel and More
Crude oil is primarily refined into various types of fuels to power transport and vital utilities. More than 85% of crude oil is refined into fuels like gasoline, diesel, and hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGLs) like propane and butane.
Along with being fuels for transportation, heating, and cooking, HGLs are used as feedstock for the production of chemicals, plastics, and synthetic rubber, and as additives for motor gasoline production.
|Refined Crude Oil Product||Share of Crude Oil Refined|
|Hydrocarbon gas liquids||2.0%|
Source: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
Crude oil not only powers our vehicles, but it also helps pave the roads we drive on. About 4% of refined crude oil becomes asphalt, which is used to make concrete and different kinds of sealing and insulation products.
Although transportation and utility fuels dominate a large proportion of refined products, essential everyday materials like wax and plastic are also dependent on crude oil. With about 10% of refined products used to make plastics, cosmetics, and textiles, a barrel of crude oil can produce a variety of unexpected everyday products.
Personal care products like cosmetics and shampoo are made using petroleum products, as are medical supplies like IV bags and pharmaceuticals. Modern life would look very different without crude oil.
The Process of Refining Crude Oil
You might have noticed that while a barrel of oil contains 42 gallons, it ends up producing 45 gallons of refined products. This is because the majority of refined products have a lower density than crude oil, resulting in an increase in volume that is called processing gain.
Along with this, there are other inputs aside from crude oil that are used in the refining process. While crude oil is the primary input, fuel ethanol, hydrocarbon gas liquids, and other blending liquids are also used.
|U.S. Refiner and Blender Inputs||Share of Total|
|Hydrocarbon gas liquids||3.0%|
The process of refining a 30,000-barrel batch of crude oil typically takes between 12-24 hours, with refineries operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Although the proportions of individual refined products can vary depending on market demand and other factors, the majority of crude oil will continue to become fuel for the world’s transport and utilities.
The Difficulty of Cutting Down on Crude Oil
From the burning of heavy fuels that tarnish icebergs found in Arctic waters to the mounds of plastic made with petrochemicals that end up in our rivers, each barrel of oil and its refined products impact our environment in many different ways.
But even as the world works to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels in order to reach climate goals, a world without crude oil seems unfathomable.
Skyrocketing sales of EVs still haven’t managed to curb petroleum consumption in places like Norway, California, and China, and the steady reopening of travel and the economy will only result in increased petroleum consumption.
Completely replacing the multi-faceted “black gold” that’s in a barrel of oil isn’t possible right now, but as electrification continues and we find alternatives to petrochemical materials, humanity might at least manage to reduce its dependence on burning fossil fuels.
Mapped: Visualizing U.S. Oil Production by State
The U.S. is the largest oil producer in the world. Here we map the share of oil production in the country by all 50 states in 2020.
Mapped: Visualizing U.S. Oil Production by State
In 2018, the United States became the world’s top crude oil producer. It has strongly held this position ever since.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the country accounted for nearly 15% of the world’s total oil production in 2020, churning out close to 13 million barrels of crude oil per day—more than Russia or Saudi Arabia.
Although total U.S. oil production declined between 1985 and 2008, annual production increased nearly every year from 2009 through 2019, reaching the highest amount on record in 2019.
The Dominant Oil Producing States
Impressively, 71% of total U.S. oil production came from just five states. An additional 14.6% came from the Gulf of Mexico, which is a federal jurisdiction.
Here are the five states that produce the largest amount of crude oil:
|Share of Total Production|
Rounding the top 10 are states like Alaska, California, Wyoming, Louisiana, and Utah.
Texas is undoubtedly the largest oil-producing state in the United States. In 2020, Texas produced a total of 1.78 billion barrels of oil. Texas is home to the most productive U.S. oil basin, the Permian, routinely accounting for at least 50% of total onshore production. A distant second is North Dakota, which produced about 431.2 million barrels of oil in 2020.
Regional Distribution of U.S. Oil Production
A total of 32 of the 50 U.S. states produce oil. They are divided among five regional divisions for oil production in the U.S., known as the Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts (PADD).
These five regional divisions of the allocation of fuels were established in the U.S. during the Second World War and are still used today for data collection purposes.
Given that Texas is the largest U.S. oil-producing state, PADD 3 (Gulf Coast) is also the largest oil-producing PADD. PADD 3 also includes the federal offshore region in the Gulf of Mexico. There are around 400 operational oil and gas rigs in the country.
Impact of U.S. Oil Production on Employment
Rapid growth in oil production using advanced drilling methods has created high-paying jobs in states like North Dakota and Texas.
Thanks to the rapid development in the Bakken Shale formation, North Dakota boasts the nation’s lowest unemployment rate. The state has also grown personal income and state economic output at a fast rate, due to oil and gas industry growth.
Oil production from the Eagle Ford Shale has transformed a relatively poor region of South Texas into one of the nation’s most significant economic development zones. In fact, due largely to the oil and natural gas industry, the Texas Comptroller estimates that Texas has recovered 100% of the jobs lost during the Great Recession.
Looking to the Future
The U.S. slashed its oil production forecast through next year just as OPEC and its allies begin to roll back their production cuts in the coming months.
U.S. oil output will drop to 11.04 million barrels a day this year, down from a forecasted 11.15 million. This was a result of the deep freeze that shut down the oil industry in Texas. The EIA also lowered its output forecast for 2022 by 100,000 barrels a day.
Despite its forecast for a rise in supply from outside the cartel this year, OPEC said in its report that it is uncertain about the levels of investment expected to determine the non-OPEC supply outlook for the years to come.
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