Arctic Oil Rush Sparks Battles Over Seafloor

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
August 23, 2007

Polar Power Play | Part One of a Two-Part Series
Part Two: "Ice, Cold, Ecological Risks May Hamper Arctic Oil Rush"

The Arctic, known better for its polar bears and melting sea ice than its fossil fuels, may soon become a hot spot for oil—spurring an international rush to stake claims on the seafloor.

The Arctic Ocean's seabed may hold billions of gallons of oil and natural gas—up to 25 percent of the world's undiscovered reserves, according to U.S. Geological Survey estimates—leading some experts to call the region the next Saudi Arabia.

That's enticing enough for countries bordering the Arctic to begin vying for the resources that might lie beneath the ice. (See a map of the Arctic Ocean.)

First came the Russians, who in early August used a minisub to plant a Russian flag to the bottom of the ocean, 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) beneath the North Pole.

Soon, other countries were in on the act.

Denmark has sent an icebreaker on geological mission to study the seabed north of Greenland to see if it might be an extension of the island (which is owned by Denmark).

The Healy, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, is mapping the seabed north of Alaska. Canada has announced the creation of two new Arctic military bases and has budgeted the equivalent of five billion U.S. dollars for eight new icebreakers to protect its interests.

But who really owns the Arctic?

Staking a Claim

Flag-planting has nothing to do with ownership, said David Caron, director of the Law of the Sea Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

"The Canadian [foreign minister] has it exactly correct," he said by email. "This is not the 15th century, when title might be gained through discovery and the planting of a flag."

Continued on Next Page >>


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