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Petroleum News: Arctic claims heat up

Vol. 12, No. 33  Week of August 19, 2007

Russian expedition poses challenge to United States, Canada and other northern nations; Canada steps up fight with plans for deepwater port, military outposts, and an increase of 900 members in the Canadian Ranger patrol

Gary Park
For Petroleum News

Forget about “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming” — the Cold War comedy about the grounding of a Russian submarine off a small New England town.

They’re here.

More accurately, they’re there.

At the North Pole that is.

Whipping up a frenzy among other northern nations, a Russian submarine crew planted a titanium flag on the seabed and returned to a hero’s welcome in Moscow amid a welter of rhetoric, with expedition leader Artur Chilingarov proclaiming that the Arctic has “always been Russian and will remain so. Hurrah!” (See story in last week’s Petroleum News.)

President Vladimir Putin, bursting with pride, but a trifle more restrained, said the expedition’s work should “become part” of Russia’s claims to what has been estimated at 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves, plus other untold resources.

To the concern of other claimants — notably the United States, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Norway — Russia has already set up new military and civilian posts on an archipelago within its territorial waters of the Barents Sea and close to the unresolved borders of the Arctic region.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay retaliated by telling the Russians they have no right to just “drop a flag somewhere” and declare that territory to be theirs.

“This isn’t the 14th or 15th century,” he said.

Russia positioning itself

The view of specialists in international oil and gas law and territorial land claims is that Russia is positioning itself to seize the lion’s share if and when the Arctic is divided into mutually exclusive economic zones.
Not often known for the boldness of its international actions, Canada was quick to respond to an exterior challenge to a region that few see, but all Canadians regard as part of their birthright — the payoff for the price they pay in surviving the long northern winter.

It has also dispatched a 600-member joint forces team to the coastal waters of Baffin Island and Hudson Strait to establish its presence in that area.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on a previously planned three-day trip to Canada’s North, traveled to the hamlet of Resolute Bay, Nunavut — 360 miles from the magnetic North Pole — on Aug. 9 to reinforce Canada’s Arctic sovereignty claims.

He was accompanied by Defense Minister Gordon O’Connor in announcing plans for a new deepwater port for naval and civilian use. It will be built at the north end of Baffin Island, using the abandoned zinc mining village of Nanisivik.

Harper also said Resolute Bay will be the site of a second military facility as Canada sends out a message that it has a “real, growing, long-term presence in the Arctic.”

“The first principle of Arctic sovereignty is: Use it or lose it,” he said. “Taken together … (these actions) will significantly strengthen Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic,” Harper declared.

Canadian Rangers patrol will be increased

In addition to the military posts, the Canadian Rangers patrol — a volunteer Inuit force — will be increased to 5,000 members from 4,100 at a cost of C$240 million over 20 years, although only 100 will be housed at the Resolute Bay facility.
The port at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage will extend the range of military ships in the Arctic through the navigable season from June to October.

Environmental studies will get under way in 2008, with construction due to start in 2010 at a total cost of C$100 million. The port should be fully operational by 2015. Operating and maintenance is expected to cost C$200 million over 20 years.

In July, Harper said six to eight new navy patrol ships will be built to assert Canada’s control over the Northwest Passage — well short of the year-round icebreakers he had promised in the 2006 federal election campaign.

As global warming melts ice and the open-water season increases, the passage offers the chance to slash 2,500 miles off shipping routes between Europe and Asia and the chances to exploit the unknown natural resources.

Michael Byers, an international expert on northern sovereignty issues, said the fast-unfolding events are the equivalent of Canada’s “moon mission and that requires the same degree of political commitment. We’re playing with the big boys here.”

U.S. taking low-key approach

For now, the U.S. State Department has taken a low-key approach, suggesting a United Nations commission will make a recommendation concerning any Russian claims in the light of whatever scientific data it gathers.
The department also observed that the United States and Russia work closely within the Arctic Council.

Norway adopted a cool stance, suggesting the Russians had operated within the rules of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, saying the planting of a Russian flag was a “purely symbolic action.”

But Denmark, which has collided with Canada over who owns Hans Island, a half-square mile of rock at the entrance to the Northwest Passage, is taking a similar approach to Canada.

It is about to join Sweden in sending an expedition to the Arctic in pursuit of shipping and sea bed rights.

However, that party will have its path to the North Pole cleared by a chartered Russian icebreaker and will have one Canadian scientist aboard the research vessel.

Danes want control of Lomonosov Ridge

The primary thrust for Denmark is control of the Lomonosov Ridge, a 900-mile undersea mountain range that runs past the North Pole between Siberia and North America.
Moscow insists the ridge is an extension of the Eurasian continent and thus part of Russia’s continental shelf under international law.

Denmark argues that “preliminary investigations” suggest the ridge is a geological extension of the northern coast of Greenland, which is controlled by Denmark.

While scientists from the U.S., Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway collaborate on polar research to map the sea bottom, their governments remain on competitive terms.

The United States has long resisted the claims of both Canada and Russia to the Northwest Passage, saying the waterway is part of the high seas that anyone can enter without prior consent.

The question now is whether military might will override international law.

University of Calgary political scientist Rob Huebert told the National Post the scientific claims are crucial, which gives the U.S. an edge with its icebreaker Healy, which headed north earlier in August. It can break through ice that is more than six feet thick and is designed to conduct a wide range of research activities by more than 50 scientists aboard the vessel.

Huebert said that although the Healy’s destination has not been disclosed, if the U.S. goes “straight to the pole, it is a clear indication that they are marking territory.”

In particular, President George W. Bush is pushing for Congress to ratify the Law of the Seas Convention, opening the way for the U.S. to submit its claims to the Chukchi Sea about 9,600 miles north of Bering Strait.

Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said in a Wall Street Journal article that the U.S. and Canada should join forces to rebuff some of the Russian claims.

He suggested that if the U.S. endorsed Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage in “return for some sort of guarantee of U.S. military and civilian access, the two countries could strengthen their position vis-à-vis Russia.”

He said the U.S. and Canada are natural allies if old rivalries resurface and there is a battle over control of the Arctic.
 
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