Greenland is once again catching the imagination of outsiders. International business executives and diplomats are retracing Egede’s journey. The rapid melting of the northern polar ice has set off something of a scramble for the resources buried below. By US estimates, the Arctic may hold 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 per cent of its untapped gas as well as untold mineral resources. The London-based think-tank Chatham House talks of an Arctic “cold rush”. Greenland, a frozen and mostly empty sprawl of a country reaching up from the Atlantic to the Arctic Ocean, sees a chance to reclaim its pre-colonial identity. “I guess we are in the business of nation-building,” says Vittus Qujaukitsoq, the minister of economy in a government with its sights on independence.
The discovery of iron ore, zinc, gold and much else has attracted prospectors from as far away as Australia. Deposits of rare earth materials could challenge China’s grip on the global trade in the valuable metallic elements vital to today’s technological gadgetry. Greenlanders dream that the seabed beyond its northern coast might one day yield hydrocarbons to rival the riches on the slopes of Alaska. “Climate change,” Qujaukitsoq says, “is a new opportunity for Greenland.”
Qujaukitsoq says climate warming gives the country the chance to “create our own economy – firstly by rebuilding our fishing industry, secondly by creating a mining industry and thirdly with tourism”. Lest anyone think there is a shortage of riches, he reels them off: “gold, silver, platinum, palladium, zinc, iron, copper, rare earths, lead, to name just a few we know for certain Greenland has in large quantities”.
Kirkegaard, the mining minister, welcomes the world’s attention. The government has lifted a decades-old ban on the mining of uranium which had applied even when the material was collected as an unavoidable byproduct. The Australian-based Greenland Minerals and Energy describes the move as a “transformative event” which opens up huge potential for the mining of rare earths in southern Greenland. Kirkegaard says the timing for such developments is perfect – the demand for resources from the swelling middle classes of the emerging nations comes at the moment an investor spotlight has turned to the Arctic. There are plenty of other places with untapped resources but “Greenland is strategically in a good place. The rule of law applies. It is a democratic country where you can trust the courts and laws. That’s important for mining companies.” It will take time to locate the oil and gas reserves but Shell, Maersk, Statoil and Cairn Energy are among companies with drilling licences. For now, says Kirkegaard, “You know it’s there, but not quite where.”
So Greenland finds itself at the heart of one of the 21st century’s big geopolitical games: the race to stake out territory and interests in the world’s last ungoverned space. One outcome may be a free-for-all in which competing states fight it out above and below the ice for control of trade routes and resources. Another, enshrined in the ambitions of the eight-nation Arctic Council, would see the creation of a unique structure of international co-operation charged with defusing tensions and safeguarding the unique ecology.
Norway, usually nothing if not avowedly multilateral, has strengthened its military forces in the Arctic region and hosts regular exercises for Nato troops in the high north. Normally placid Canada is boisterously nationalistic about its polar territory where it is embroiled in disputes with Washington about shipping rights in the Beaufort Sea. The US, which after the second world war tried and failed to buy Greenland from Denmark (in 1917 it had completed a similar transaction with Copenhagen to secure ownership of what are now the US Virgin Islands), has only quite recently woken up to the broader strategic significance of the Arctic. US secretaries of state, who had previously deputed their juniors to handle the region, now make a point of turning up at the regular ministerial gatherings of the Arctic Council.
The power plays reach beyond governments with an obvious territorial stake in the region. China rebranded itself a “near-Arctic” state some time ago. After an intense diplomatic campaign – which Russia failed to scupper – Beijing has secured a seat as an observer on the Arctic. It has signed free-trade and economic agreements with financially beleaguered Iceland in what western governments see as an attempt to establish an Arctic staging post. “China wants to buy it,” says one western diplomat bluntly of Beijing’s courtship of Reykjavik. With an eye on potential mineral resources, Beijing may send up to 3,000 workers to open an iron ore mine in Greenland. All this stirs anxiety in Washington. “If China is paying attention,” a US official says, “we cannot afford not to.”