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International Herald Tribune: The great Arctic oil rush

Published: August 12, 2007

For a brief moment it seemed that Admiral Robert Peary and Dr. Frederick Cook had risen from the mists to renew their race to the North Pole.

On Aug. 2, a couple of Moscow legislators in a small submersible vessel deposited a Russian flag on the seabed two miles under the polar ice cap – backing up Russia’s claim to about half the floor of the Arctic Ocean. Canada’s foreign minister, Peter McKay, dismissed the move, sniffing that “this isn’t the 15th century.” But just in case, Prime Minister Stephen Harper set off on a three-day tour of the region and announced plans to build two new military bases to reinforce Canada’s territorial claims.

At stake is control of the Northwest Passage and, with it, what could be huge deposits of oil and natural gas in the seabed below.

In a 21st-century twist unimaginable to Cook and Peary, global warming – driven, in part, by humanity’s profligate use of those same fossil fuels – has begun to melt the polar ice, exposing potentially huge deposits of hitherto unreachable natural resources. Some geologists believe that one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas may lie below the thawing ice. With oil at $70 a barrel, the rewards of discovery could be huge.

Russia and Canada are not alone in the great Arctic oil race. Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland and the United States also have a deep interest in the matter.

One thing is clear. To the extent that ownership can be determined, it will not be decided by photo-ops or even by planting flags in the seabed (the Russians’ is made of corrosion-resistant titanium.).

Under international law, nations have rights to resources that lie up to 200 miles off their shores. The rest is regarded as international waters, subject to negotiation under the Law of the Sea.

A nation can claim territory beyond the 200-mile limit, but only if it can prove that the seabed is a physical extension of its continental shelf.

The Russians are claiming that the huge Lomonosov Ridge underneath the pole is in fact an extension of their continental shelf. Russia, which has had a long tradition of northern exploration and extraction, submitted its claim in 2001 to an international commission, which has thus far ruled that the available data is not sufficient to support it.

To show just how crazy this could get, the Danes are spending a fortune trying to prove that their end of the same ridge – though now detached – was once part of Greenland, which belongs to Denmark.

The United States does not find itself in a strong position.

Misplaced fears among right-wing senators about losing “sovereignty” has kept the Senate from ratifying the Law of the Sea even though the United Nations approved it 25 years ago. This, in turn, means that the United States, with 1,000 miles of coastline in the Arctic, has no seat at the negotiating table.

President George W. Bush and moderate Republicans like Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, will try to remedy this blunder when Congress reconvenes. This would at least enable Washington to stake its claims to the continental shelf extending northward from Alaska.

We may never need a share of that oil, but it seems foolish not to keep it in reserve. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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