* Vast oil, gas deposits coming available as ice melts
* Sea passages opening up for trade
* Environmentalists fear uncontrolled development
By Arshad Mohammed
TROMSO, Norway, June 2 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boarded a research ship on Saturday to tour the Arctic, where the world’s big powers are vying for control of vast deposits of oil, gas and minerals that are becoming available as polar ice recedes.
She visited Tromso, a Norwegian town north of the Arctic Circle, in a once inaccessible region where resources are up for grabs.
“A lot of countries are looking at what will be the potential for exploration and extraction of natural resources as well as new sea lanes,” Clinton told reporters after taking a two-hour boat tour of the loc al fjord.
“We want to work with Norway and the Arctic Council to help manage these changes and to agree on what would be, in effect, the rules of the road in the Arctic, so new developments are economically sustainable and environmentally responsible,” she said on Friday before flying to Tromso.
On a blustery morning under gray skies, Clinton and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere stood aboard the deck of the “Helmer Hanssen” Arctic research vessel and gazed out at the fjord’s pristine waters and the surrounding snow-covered mountains.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that beneath its unspoilt natural scenery, the Arctic holds about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas.
As ice melts with climate change, Arctic sea passages are also opening for longer periods each year, cutting thousands of miles off trade routes between Europe and Asia.
“There are changes going on which (are) leading to the emergence of a region which used to be frozen both politically and climatically, and now there is a thaw,” Stoere told reporters after the boat tour.
Clinton, who is on an eight-day trip to Scandinavia, the Caucasus and Turkey, is the latest high-profile visitor to the Arctic as it enjoys unprecedented political and economic power.
Energy development costs could be twice as high as those of conventional onshore resources, but that has not stopped the oil industry’s big players from moving in.
Exxon Mobil is working with Russia’s Rosneft to develop blocks in the Kara Sea, off Siberia, despite the presence of sea ice for up to 300 days a year.
Russia’s Gazprom is working with Total of France and Norway’s Statoil on the 4 trillion cubic metre Shtokman gas field, 550 km offshore in the Barents Sea.
But the rush for oil and gas has brought condemnation from environmental campaigners who say the rights of local people could be trampled.
They say more aggressive action is needed on issues such as fishing quotas and international standards for oil and gas development to protect the pristine, delicate region.
Only about 4 million people live in Arctic areas, so local interest groups are weak, prompting fears of uncontrolled development - a challenge for the Arctic Council, the advisory forum of eight nations formed in 1996 to promote cooperation on the region.
The council is made up of the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, which handles foreign affairs for Greenland, as well as groups representing indigenous people in the Arctic.