WASHINGTON With oil above $100 a barrel and
Arctic ice melting faster than ever, some of the world's most
powerful countries -- including the United States and Russia --
are looking north to a possible energy bonanza.
This prospective scramble for buried Arctic mineral wealth
made more accessible by freshly melted seas could bring on a
completely different kind of cold war, a scholar and former
Coast Guard officer says.
While a U.S. government official questioned the risk of
polar conflict, Washington still would like to join a
25-year-old international treaty meant to figure out who owns
the rights to the oceans, including the Arctic Ocean. So far,
the Senate has not approved it.
Unlike the first Cold War, dominated by tensions between
the two late-20th century superpowers, this century's model
could pit countries that border the Arctic Ocean against each
other to claim mineral rights. The Arctic powers include the
United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway.
The irony is that the burning of fossil fuels is at least
in part responsible for the Arctic melt -- due to climate
change -- and the Arctic melt could pave the way for a 21st
century rush to exploit even more fossil fuels.
The stakes are enormous, according to Scott Borgerson of
the Council on Foreign Relations, a former U.S. Coast Guard
The Arctic could hold as much as one-quarter of the world's
remaining undiscovered oil and gas deposits, Borgerson wrote in
the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.
Russia has claimed 460,000 square miles (1.191 million sq
km) of Arctic waters, with an eye-catching effort that included
planting its flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole last
summer. Days later, Moscow sent strategic bomber flights over
the Arctic for the first time since the Cold War.
"I think you can say planting a flag on the sea bottom and
renewing strategic bomber flights is provocative," Borgerson
said in a telephone interview.
SCRAMBLING AND SLEEPWALKING
By contrast, he said of the U.S. position, "I don't think
we're scrambling. We're sleepwalking ... I think the Russians
are scrambling and I think the Norwegians and Canadians and
Danes are keenly aware."
Borgerson said that now would be an appropriate time for
the United States to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of
the Sea, which codifies which countries have rights to what
parts of the world's oceans.
The Bush administration agrees. So do many environmental
groups, the U.S. military and energy companies looking to
explore the Arctic, now that enough ice is seasonally gone to
open up sea lanes as soon as the next decade.
"There's no ice cold war," said one U.S. government
official familiar with the Arctic Ocean rights issue. However,
the official noted that joining the Law of the Sea pact would
give greater legal certainty to U.S. claims in the area.
That is becoming more crucial, as measurements of the U.S.
continental shelf get more precise.
Coastal nations like those that border the Arctic have
sovereign rights over natural resources of their continental
shelves, generally recognized to reach 200 nautical miles out
from their coasts.
But in February, researchers from the University of New
Hampshire and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration released data suggesting that the continental
shelf north of Alaska extends more than 100 nautical miles
farther than previously presumed.
A commission set up by the Law of the Sea lets countries
expand their sea floor resource rights if they meet certain
conditions and back them up with scientific data.
The treaty also governs navigation rights, suddenly more
important as scientists last year reported the opening of the
normally ice-choked waters of the Northwest Passage from the
Atlantic to the Pacific.
"Of course we need to be at the table as ocean law
develops," the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of
anonymity. "It's not like ocean law is going to stop developing
if we're not in there. It's just going to develop without us."
(Editing by Philip Barbara)
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