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."

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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