Claiming the Arctic – a vast treasure trove of natural resources yet to be exploited

A frozen ’treasure’ is soon to be discovered since its fortification is melting rapidly. The Arctic Ocean is becoming more accessible and the momentum is rising as several countries are vying for a claim to the Arctic seabed and its vast purported natural resources. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is the umbrella organization that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment coupled with the management of marine natural resources.

Countries in the region are increasing their lobbying efforts and activities providing their perceptions of evidence and justifications to UNCLOS to determine who will eventually gain the rights to legally acquire the riches from the seabed of the Arctic.

The UNCLOS replaced the 17th Century rule known as ‘Freedom of the Seas’ that was developed by a Dutchman utilizing what was coined as the ‘canon shot’ to determine the national boundaries of a country with coastal territorial waters. The waters beyond the ‘canon shot’ were considered mare liberum (free seas).

Countries that border the Arctic region are Russia, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Canada and the US and they are disputing who owns what of the continental shelf. Tensions and verbal diplomatic spats have escalated between the nations. Under international law, no country currently owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it and those countries bordering it are limited to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ). UNCLOS allows foreign vessels including naval vessels the right of innocent passage in the EEZ.

The Arctic nations have a vested interest in pursuing their rush to claim these oil and gas resources because under the Arctic Ocean there is estimated to be 25% of the world’s current oil and natural gas resources. The question that remains is who has the rights to drill where and who will profit from these natural resources. To settle this dispute, UNCLOS has set out, with the expertise of geologists and other specialist scientists, to determine if the continental shelf is part of the seabed that can be proven that it belongs to any single country.

Trying to bridge the ridges scientifically

In mid-2009 Russia’s President Medvedev stated in a television interview: “Our main goal is to transform the Arctic into a resource base for Russia in the 21st Century”.  In 2007, Russia made the first move by planting a flag on the ocean floor beneath the North Pole. This caused additional tensions. That said, Neil Armstrong placed an American flag on the moon in 1969. And Norwegian Roald Amundsen placed a flag on the geographic South Pole in 1911.

However, scientists from Russia have also been busy trying to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range that cuts across the Arctic Ocean, is geologically part of the Russian mainland coupled with Mendeleev Ridge that are extensions of the Eurasian continent.

Denmark (via Greenland), also has its interests in claiming the ridge, stating it is an extension of Greenland, which is a self-governing province of Denmark. This is followed by Canadian scientists submitting a paper to the respected Journal of Geophyiscal Research claiming proof that the Lomonosov Ridge is part of the North American land mass. Former Canadian Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn stated: “We will be reaffirming our commitment about defending and protecting our sovereignty in the Arctic”.

The Arctic coastal nations are submitting their claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) for evaluation whilst the dispute of ownership and sovereignty continues. Currently all nations are trying to solve this issue through the umbrella organization UNCLOS, however, in accordance with article 287, any nation can opt to settle the dispute via the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas, to date this has not happened.

A new geopolitical battleground

In early 2011, at an Arctic conference held in Tromsö, Norway, U.S. Rear Admiral Dave Titley stated: “We believe that sometime between 2035 and 2040, there is a pretty good chance that the Arctic Ocean will be essentially ice-free for about a month.” These longer periods of ice-free waters will likely mean more vessels trying to navigate the narrow straits and channels of the Northwest Passage, a series of waterways along the US coast that wind through Canada’s Arctic archipelago of 36,000 islands, including commercial shippers looking for shortened trade routes.

By linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans greatly reduces transit times for ships that have relied on southern route through the Panama Canal. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising faster than anywhere else in the world, making the Arctic region easier to navigate. For shipping companies hoping to shorten trade routes through the Arctic Ocean that provides them quicker access to economic dynamos such as China and India.

That said, the Arctic Ocean causes more diplomatic rows pursuant to the usage of waterways. Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US all regard parts of the Arctic seas as “national waters” i.e. territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles. There also are disputes regarding what passages constitute “international seaways” and rights to passage along them e.g. the Northern Passage.

Beyond profits and sovereignty

As the need for energy continues to rise and while onshore oil reserves dwindle, the search for oil offshore continues to surge. This increases the risks for accidents. The harsh climatic conditions in the Arctic Ocean make the exploration and extrapolation very dangerous.  The waters of the Arctic are particularly extreme for drilling because of the punishing cold, long periods of darkness, dense fogs, and hurricane-strength winds.

Lamor’s knowledge, expertise and commitment in providing the most advanced oil spill clean-up solutions with equipment, training, and a dedicated response team known as the Lamor Response Team (LRT), is unparalleled with a global reach in any climatic conditions and regions. “We have expertise and equipment for tackling hazardous accidents such as oil spills in all terrains and climates,” says Fred Larsen, CEO of Lamor Corporation.

The Arctic Ocean’s ecosystem is considered to be one of the most vulnerable to oil spills in comparison to other regions. “The cold weather, the thick ice cover together with slow turnover of eco-systems mean that toxic oil spills could last longer and expose multiple generations of organisms to contamination,” he says. “An Arctic oil spill could set off irreversible chain-reactions of contamination. The lack of sunlight also impacts the breakdown of spilled oil and other chemicals. Therefore, it is essential for both corporations and governments to be responsible and take the necessary steps by investing in training and equipment to reduce a catastrophic environmental disaster, and this is where we can help,” Larsen says confidently and categorically.

Text: Thomas Barbieri