COPENHAGEN, May 26 (Reuters) - Officials from five Arctic coastal countries will meet in Greenland this week to discuss how to carve up the Arctic Ocean, which could hold up to one-quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves.
Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States are squabbling over much of the Arctic seabed and Denmark has called them together for talks in its self-governing province to avert a free-for-all for the region's resources.
Russia angered the other Arctic countries last year by planting a flag on the seabed under the North Pole in a headline-grabbing gesture that some criticised as a stunt.
Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller and the premier of Greenland's government, Hans Enoksen, will meet the Norwegian and Russian foreign ministers Jonas Gahr Stoere and Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Canada's Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn at the two-day conference opening on Wednesday in the town of Ilulissat.
The issue has gained urgency because scientists believe rising temperatures could leave most of the Arctic ice-free in summer months in a few decades' time.
This would improve drilling access and open up the Northwest Passage, a route through the Arctic Ocean linking the Atlantic and Pacific that would reduce the sea journey from New York to Singapore by thousands of miles.
Under the 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, coastal states own the seabed beyond existing 200 nautical mile (370 km) zones if it is part of a continental shelf of shallower waters.
TANGLE OF CLAIMS
Some shelves stretch hundreds of miles before reaching the deep ocean floor, which belongs to no state. While the rules aim to fix clear geological limits for shelves' outer limits, they have created a tangle of overlapping Arctic claims.
"The Law of the Sea Convention will basically give most of the Arctic Ocean bed to the five countries, but it is also likely that there will be two smaller areas that will not be controlled by any country," said Lars Kullerud, president of the University of the Arctic, an international cooperative network based in the circumpolar region.
Countries around the ice-locked ocean are rushing to stake claims on the Polar Basin seabed and its hydrocarbon treasures made more tempting by rising oil prices and have taken their arguments to the United Nations.
Despite shrinking ice cover, it will be decades before it is possible to harvest oil outside the already established 200 nautical miles.
Kullerud said it was likely the process would produce areas where countries agree to disagree on mutual borders and that would fall under joint stewardship until agreement was reached.
Environmental groups have criticised the scramble for the Arctic and called for a treaty similar to that regulating the Antarctic, which bans military activity and mineral mining.
Denmark has urged all those involved to abide by U.N. rules on territorial claims and hopes to sign a declaration that the United Nations would rule on the disputes. Both it and Norway have said there is no need for a special treaty.
Besides territorial claims, the countries also plan to discuss cooperation on accidents, maritime security and oil spills. (Reporting by Kim McLaughlin; editing by Andrew Dobbie)
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