Russia’s move this month to claim the Arctic as its own has become an unofficial international land grab among at least five countries that want the right to explore and perhaps develop icy lands that may hold up to 25% of the world’s remaining natural gas and oil reserves.
The United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark (through its possession of Greenland) have all used the “continental shelf argument” over the years to unofficially claim that the Arctic seabed is an extension of their sovereign territories.
Russia, however, has taken the first step to try and make its claims official. Earlier this month, two Russian mini submarines were able to briefly travel about 13,200 feet below unexplored Arctic waters to begin studying the geological formations under the polar ice pack. The Russians want to study the undersea formations to prove the land belongs to them. While they were deep below the Arctic waters, one of the Russian submarine crews planted a titanium Russian flag on the ocean floor.
The international community has not let the flag moment pass.
U.S. lawmakers have been called on to ratify the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty, which allows signatory nations to claim exclusive commercial exploitation zones up to 200 miles from their coastlines. Norway’s foreign minister called the Russian display “show business,” and Denmark said it would begin some mapping studies.
Canadian officials were angry.
“This isn’t the 15th century,” Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay told a television audience. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.'” MacKay said Canada wasn’t “concerned” about Russia’s mission. The flag, he said, was “just a show by Russia.”
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on a three-day northern sovereignty tour that ended Friday, had long planned to visit the Arctic region this month, but a spokesman said the Russian venture changed the trip’s dynamics.
“We’re sending our prime minister to reassert Canadian sovereignty,” he told NGI.
Harper threw down the gauntlet on Friday.
“Canada’s new government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is: ‘Use it or lose it,'” Harper said in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, about 600 kilometers from the magnetic North Pole. He said his “announcements tell the world that Canada has a real, growing, long-term presence in the Arctic.” The Harper government also staked claim to the northern territories’ waters, which include 36,500 islands and untold amounts of natural resources.
Under Harper’s plan, Canada will build a new army training center and a deep-sea port inside of the Northwest Passage. The passage is expected to provide a summer shipping route to Asia in the coming decades because of melting ice flows in the region. The training facility would be manned by up to 100 Canadian Forces personnel in Resolute Bay. The port for navy and civilians would be located on the site of an abandoned mine in the village of Nanisivik on the north end of Baffin Island.
Harper said the new facilities, along with an expansion by 900 of the Canadian Rangers 4,100-member patrol, would bolster Canada’s authority in the region.
“Taken together…(these announcements) will significantly strengthen Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic,” said Harper. “These initiatives will also benefit communities throughout the region by creating jobs and opportunities and enhancing the safety and security of the people who live here.”
The government estimates construction costs for the port, which will be located at the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage, at C$100 million, with operating and maintenance costs of about C$10 million per year over 20 years. Environmental studies would begin next year, leading up to construction by 2010. The port could open by 2012 and become fully operational by 2015.
The Canadian press also is doing what it can to stir up support for the country’s claims. Among other things, the CanWest News Service weighed in, noting that Canadian explorer Jack MacKenzie planted a flag for the Canadian postal service at the North Pole in 1999.
“There was an understanding, backed by a letter from the then-president of Canada Post…that the voyage would set up a postal outlet for Santa Claus,” the news service wrote.
It will take years before any actual exploration could come about, but as to which country holds claims to the untold riches — answering that question will be tricky. In any event, many expect the final decision to be made by the United Nations. If the international body were to intervene, the matter could come before the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf after seabed samples are taken deep within the seafloor. Those samples could determine whether the continental shelf extends to the area under the North Pole — and which country’s claims are correct. However, that sort of deep drilling is not technologically possible today — which may extend the cold war for a long time.
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