You may not have heard about the Paracels and the Spratlys.
These two island chains, located in the South China Sea, have for years been at the epicentre of a heated controversy between neighbouring countries. Since early May 2014, the area has been scene of a tense standoff between China and Vietnam, as both countries have claims to sovereignty over the area.
Of course, this story is not really about the Islands, which are mostly uninhibited tiny islands, sand banks and reefs, but rather about what lies beneath the seabed surrounding them. Both China and Vietnam believe the area to be rich in natural resources, in particular commercially viable deposits of oil and gas. A major shipping route passes through the area, which home to fishing grounds that provide livelihoods of people across the region.
The trouble in early May was sparked the arrival of a Chinese deep-water drilling rig into an area claimed both by China and Vietnam. Several people have died in subsequent anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam, while tensions at the drilling site has been high, with dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese vessels ramming one another in a dangerous standoff.
The South China Sea is one of many places around the world where the quest for resources and conflict go hand-in-hand. With resources are getting scarcer, nations and corporations are scrambling for control and sovereignty claims are mixed with commercial interests.
We have all, by now, heard about the scramble for oil in the Arctic. With climate change-induced ice melt reaching an unprecedented level, Arctic coastal states have been making conflicting territorial claims as they seek to extend their control over areas believed to be rich in fossil fuels and other minerals. Governments are also boosting military presence in the region, to support these territorial claims and to protect their economic interests. The Arctic – once a cold war playground between superpowers – has become an area where companies, backed by governments, race to gain access to more of the fossil fuels that caused the melt in the first place. Freezing temperatures, a narrow drilling window and a remote location mean that an oil spill would be almost impossible to deal with and would be devastating to the people and wildlife of the region, but this sadly, is not enough of a deterrent.
In April, Russia’s state-owned and biggest energy company, Gazprom claimed first prize in the race to exploit the Arctic. A tanker filled with the first crude oil from the Arctic arrived into Rotterdam harbor, in the Netherlands. The oil came from the Prirazlomnaya oilrig in the Barents Sea, the first Arctic oil to be produced in icy waters – and the rig against which Greenpeace activists on board the Arctic Sunrise, the Arctic 30, peacefully protested last year.
Gazprom plays a central role in the ongoing tensions in the Ukraine. This crisis has shaken the entire global energy sector, with entangled political and business interests. Gazprom is threatening to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine; with 30% of Europe’s gas coming from Russia, the implications are far-reaching. In response, EU governments are now considering how to achieve energy independence. Sadly, – as their leaked plan shows – their plan is to simply change the dealer, instead of ending their fossil fuel addiction and choosing renewables and energy efficiency – the peaceful energies which could make Europe truly energy independent.
With drilling rigs becoming a mobile manifestation of state sovereignty and energy companies being used as a political weapon, there is only one solution – to kick our fossil fuel addiction and transform energy systems around the world. Renewable energy is getting bigger, better and cheaper every day; it holds the key to a better, more peaceful future.
Jen Maman is Greenpeace International´s Peace Advisor
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