Arctic Oil Rush Sparks Battles Over Seafloor

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On the other hand, he said, the Russian action was an assertion of a claim, prompting other countries to make their own claims—lest they be seen as agreeing to the Russians' claim.

What's more, it's unclear what the Canadian, Russian, or Danish claims actually are, said Ted McDorman, a law professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

"None of the countries have fully articulated it."

Traditionally, countries are granted exclusive oil and gas rights to territorial waters within 200 nautical miles (230 miles/370 kilometers) of their coastlines.

But territorial-waters claims may be extended if the nation's continental shelf extends farther from land.

Furthermore, the oil treasure lying underneath the ice is still "massive speculation," McDorman, of the University of Victoria said.

"Nobody knows what the resources are. But continental shelves in other parts of the world [such as the Gulf of Mexico] have yielded oil and gas," he said.

Territorial Disputes

The Russians' claim to ownership of the North Pole is based on the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea ridge extending north from Siberia.

But since the ridge extends all the way to North America, the Danes and the Canadians might also assert the same claim.

Under a 1982 treaty—not yet ratified by the United States—the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf rules on claims for extended territorial waters.

Each country must submit its claims to the commission within ten years of signing the treaty, which is 2013 for Canada and 2014 for Denmark.

Russia asserted its claim to a 1.2-million-square-kilometer (460,000-square-mile) zone in 2001.

The commission evaluates these claims based on the terrain and geology of the seabed—"in very simplistic terms: on whether it is continental in nature," McDorman said.

The real issue in the Arctic has always been Russia, Caron said.

"Everyone should be focused on the ability of Russia to do exploration in a sound way. And their record is so terrible that there's a lot to think about."

For instance, the Soviet Union government dumped "staggering" quantities of nuclear waste into the shallow waters of their Arctic Ocean shelf, he said.

"As th[ose] containers deteriorate over the coming decades, there will be a continuing and deep set of serious environment hazards in the Arctic."

Overall, Caron said, it's good that current oil speculations are focusing attention on the Arctic—attention that he hopes will help keep Russia and other speculators on good behavior. "The Arctic has needed attention."

Coming Friday afternoonHow to drill the North Pole—and how it could affect the environment.

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