Climate Feedback

Meeting heads off Arctic oil disputes

398px-Northpole_polarstern_hg.jpgThe predicted effects of climate change can be counted on to shake up international relations, even far from the impoverished, politically wobbly regions where the most obvious conflicts loom. A case in point is the tranquil Arctic seabed, believed to hold a substantial fraction* of the world’s undeveloped oil reserves – which, as the summer sea ice extent decreases year by year, is suddenly set to become accessible for extraction.

As such, the Arctic Ocean is a new source of friction among the five countries that claim portions of it as their sovereign territory: the US, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Russia, the latter of which elicited clucking from some of the others in August when it sent a submersible to the sea bottom and planted a titanium national flag at the underwater North Pole. And more than the pole is up for grabs. In a great piece on the politics of Arctic climate change in Vanity Fair, Alex Shoumatoff writes:

Last summer, Canada’s Northwest Passage was nearly free of ice and completely navigable for a few weeks—for the first time since records have been kept. This fabled route to the Orient, which eluded Henry Hudson, Sir Francis Drake, and Martin Frobisher, and was finally navigated by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1905, would reshape global trade, being thousands of miles shorter than most currently used shipping routes, though it won’t be clear long enough to be commercially viable for at least another 15 to 20 years. Canada has claimed the passage as its internal waterway since the early 1970s, but the U.S. maintains that it is an international strait, through which any vessel, including submerged submarines gathering intelligence, has the right of “transit passage.”

On Wednesday, the five Arctic-bordering nations met in the tiny town of Ilulissat, Greenland, with the intention of staving off inconvenient squabbles over the newly unfrozen oil and gas sources. The high-level delegates sent to handle the promise of a new oil rush agreed to proceed in an orderly fashion and allow the UN to decide who owns what (Reuters, New York Times, FT).

When the UN rules on territorial rights, it will be ruling on geoscience. At issue is how far the continental shelf under each nation extends into the ocean – the criterion for sovereignty under the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention (still not ratified by the US Senate, which will apparently have to overcome past reluctance in order to achieve the country’s Arctic aims). Wednesday’s declaration gives the claimants time to gather scientific evidence to present to a commission on continental shelves.

The agreement also avoids aiming for a treaty like the one concocted to settle wrangling over Antarctica in the 1950s. A 1991 addition to the Antarctic treaty forbids exploitation of mineral resources until 2048, which may be why the delegates in Ilulissat hastened to hand their disagreements over to the UN and emphasize that no special laws would be necessary up north. Environmental groups, excluded from the meeting, would naturally prefer a treaty that could offer strong protection for Arctic ecosystems already stressed by warming.

Anna Barnett

Photo: North Pole sign set up by the crew and scientists of the German research vessel Polarstern; Hannes Grobe

*Often said to be 25% – erroneously, according to Shoumatoff.


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