TROMSO, Norway (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sailed on Saturday through a sliver of the Arctic Ocean, where the world’s big powers are vying for vast oil, gas and mineral deposits becoming available as polar ice recedes.
Clinton boarded a research ship in Tromso, a Norwegian town north of the Arctic Circle, to illustrate U.S. interests in a once inaccessible region where resources are up now for grabs and new sea routes between Europe and Asia are opening up.
“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 local fjord.
In the middle of an eight-day trip to Scandinavia, the Caucasus and Turkey, Clinton said it was important to agree on “rules of the road in the Arctic so new developments are economically sustainable and environmentally responsible.”
On a blustery morning under mostly grey skies, Clinton and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere stood on the deck of the “Helmer Hanssen” research vessel and gazed at the fjord’s pristine waters and 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, potentially cutting thousands of miles off trade routes between Europe and Asia.
Stoere described the Arctic as “a region which used to be frozen both politically and climatically, and now there is a thaw.”
Key policies governing the Arctic are enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the United States has not ratified.
The Obama administration is making a fresh push to ratify the treaty, which gives the five coastal Arctic nations rights to exclusive economic zones 200 nautical miles from their coasts and lays out how they may claim areas beyond that limit.
Critics of the ratification say it would impinge on U.S. sovereignty.
Policies are also debated in the Arctic Council, an advisory body made up of the Arctic coastal states - Canada, Denmark, which handles foreign affairs for Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States - along with Finland, Iceland and Sweden.
Other nations, including China, South Korea and Japan, want to become permanent observers to the council, illustrating the region’s importance because of its estimated energy resources and its potential as a new shipping route.
While the cost of energy development could be double those of conventional onshore resources, 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 meter 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.
Additional reporting by Balazs Koranyi; Editing by Pravin Char and Robin Pomeroy