Norway wants to open melting Arctic seas to oil and gas companies looking for new resources.
The Scandinavian country considers allowing access and granting licences for exploration in some areas of the South East Barents Sea that used to be frozen as recently as the 1980s.
Companies including ConocoPhillips and Idemitsu have expressed enthusiasm about Norway’s plans, despite warnings of climatologists that the recent warming of the region shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“For Norway to continue to be a long-term reliable supplier of oil and gas it is important to explore for, and develop" expected large resources in the Barents, deputy oil and energy minister Kåre Fostervold told Reuters.
According to the Norwegian parliament, no drilling should be allowed in areas less than 50 km (31 miles) from the edge of any sea ice. The areas under consideration are located about 1,800 km (1,100 miles) from the North Pole.
Plans to boost Arctic exploration have previously been outlined by Russia, although high costs of oil exploration in such an extreme environment are expected to hinder the progress. Safety regulations for extreme environment drilling have been made tougher after the catastrophic 2010 explosion at the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico.
Arctic sea ice shrank to the smallest on record in the summer of 2012, a trend linked by a UN panel of experts to greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.
The Barents Sea, also kept warm by the tail of the Gulf Stream, is exceptionally accessible compared with other parts of the Arctic.
However, environmentalists and some scientists say the South East Barents Sea, the first new area opened off Norway since 1994, is risky even though it has been ice free year-round for a decade.
The state-funded Norwegian Polar Institute is advising the Conservative-led government against opening some blocks, saying sea ice smothered parts of the area in winter as recently as the 1980s and could strike back despite the climate change.
"In accordance with international standards we've chosen 30 years" as the benchmark to judge global warming trends, Jan-Gunnar Winther, head of the Institute, told Reuters.
Environmental groups including Greenpeace and the WWF say an oil spill near ice would be almost impossible to clean up and could damage fish stocks.
Norway, the world's number seven oil exporter which pumps about 1.5 million barrels per day, will make a final decision on which blocks to open later this year.
The chill between many European countries and Moscow over Ukraine may make Norway's gas attractive as an alternative to Russian supplies. Still, Fostervold said it would take until the mid-2020s at the earliest to develop any big fields.
Norway estimates the Barents Sea, a vast area where Statoil already runs the Snoehvit gas field, contains 3.8 billion barrels of oil and 1.06 trillion cubic metres of gas.