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Arctic Times

Oil and Gas resources in the Barents Sea

The Barents Sea, with its disputed border controlled by Russia and Norway, supports one of the world’s major fisheries, and is as such, already economically very important. The Barents Sea may also become a major gas and oil supplier in the future. BY Lars Kullerud & Nils Ræstad

The sea is split by a natural geological border zone, following approximately along the midline between Norway and Russia. This border separates some enormous gas fields identified on
Russian side from several modest discoveries on the Norwegian side. There is 0,3 billion Sm3 o.e. (standard cubic meters of oil equivalents) of extractable oil identified on the Norwegian side; mainly as gas, with another estimated 1 billion m3 unidentified. Unofficial sources indicate that the already discovered resources on the Russian side total about 8 billion Sm3 o.e. The Russian resources are thus by far the largest, even before the Russian undiscovered resources are estimated (the undiscovered amount is speculated to be an exceptional 100 billion Sm3 o.e.).

Oil and gas exploration in the Barents Sea has faced slow development, due to the costs and political risks involved. The new start for the “Snøhvit Field” and a new oil discovery not too far from the coast has boosted new development optimism on the Norwegian sector, in spite of strong opposition from green movements. High oil price and a more stable political situation has also inspired new investments and plans for development on the Russian side.

The Barents Sea shelf has a long geological history, where rock formations favourable for later oil and gas occurrences developed. A few million years ago, when the Atlantic Ocean opened all the way to the Arctic Ocean, land on the side of the new ocean raised while land further away from the rift were not lifted. Erosion of this new land lead to decreased pressure from the above rocks on the oil and gas already trapped there. The rocks cracked leading to leakage or expansion of the gas pressed oil out of the traps. This has been the case for discoveries in the Hammerfest Basin, including the Snøhvit field, where drill cores show that the field used to be filled with oil, but now has mainly gas. The Oil that once was there has leaked out to the sea over the last two million years; but some of it may have migrated to new locations, and the discovery made by Agip on the southern margin of the basin, just north of Hammerfest may be one such location.

While the Norwegian sector may have faced an unfavourable geological history over the last million years, this is not the case further east. The disputed area between Russia and Norway has several promising prospects including Centralnoye, and Severo Kildinsky just east the mid-line. A third gas discovery, Stockman, was first announced to western experts at a conference in Harstad in 1989. The resources reported at 3,2 billion Sm3 o.e., led a western expert to insist that the Russians had made a decimal error, as this would be one of the largest gas fields in the world. Later, even larger discoveries have been proven in the Kara Sea further east. In spite this, there has been a very slow development of these resources, due to bureaucratic red tape; unknown consumer base; rough climate; problems with delivery, as well as the daunting cost of developing the extensive infrastructure required.

Future development of the huge Stockman field and the modest sized Snøhvit gas field together with new exploration licences in the Russian Arctic signal a possible growth in the oil and gas development industry in the Barents Sea. It may be time for a strengthened circumpolar cooperation to develop a means of safe production and to develop mechanisms for local job generation.

For further reading:
Ræstad, Nils, 2002; Barents Sea – geology and politics (in Norwegian, original title: “Barentshavet - geologi og politik”), Geo (periodical), No 2, 200

Lars Kullerud,
University of the Arctic
Nils Ræstad