"The Arctic is a Treasure Trove of Natural Resources"
4 Jul, 2007 04:00 pm
Rob Huebert is a specialist on the politics of the Arctic. He believes that if oil prices remain high, the Arctic will become a major strategic interest.
The main one in existence is under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Specifically, article 76 allows states, if they have the physical reality of a continental shelf, to claim the territory of the soil and subsoil. It can be understood meaning oil, gas, and any other minerals up to a distance of 350 nautical miles from their coastline. When it pertains to the Arctic, it basically means that the four Arctic states, Russia, Canada, and Denmark for Greenland are basically able to divide up the territory all the way up to the North Pole.
Is this partition contested?
This is a brand new concept. Until the Law of the Sea came into force in 1994 the whole concept of the continental shelf and control of coastal states did not exist. Under the terms of article 76 you have ten years from when you have ratified the convention to engage upon the scientific examination of whether or not you have a continental shelf and how far it extends. Basically, what we have been seeing in the last few years is that the Arctic states realize that they have to ratify the convention and now are in the process of determining what exactly their continental shelf is. The bottom line: this division of the territory is so new that we havenít had the chance for the real dispute to come forward.
Where does the Northwest Passage fit into this?
The Northwest Passage fits into another component of the Law of the Seas Convention. That is, what is the definition of what is either an international strait or internal waters. The claim of Canada is that the Northwest Passage is internal waters. Essentially, the Canadians get to set the rules and regulations for any ships coming into it, and they ultimately have the right to say no to a ship on a unilateral basis. Incidentally, the Russians make the similar claim for the northern sea route on their side. So the Canadian and Russian position is very close on this. The Americans, the British, and probably the Japanese position is that the Northwest Passage is an international strait. The Law of the Sea Convention explains both what internal waters are, and it also explains what makes up an international strait. The problem when it comes to the Arctic is that so few vessels had ever used these waters until very recently, so itís very difficult to know which interpretation can be applied. The convention provides you with what the rulebook is, but it doesnít provide the answers for what exactly the Northwest Passage or the northern sea routes is.
Where are the natural resources found?
At this point in time the lib answer is that they are found wherever anyone is looking. One of the things that is being increasingly understood about the Arctic is that it's a treasure trove of natural resources. Traditionally the very harsh climate for transportation issues has made access to those resources so expensive that even though people may know that they exist, the economic imperative has not been there. As climate change makes the area more accessible, as technology brings down the difficulties in exploiting resources, and as various factors such as the continual increase of the price of oil goes up certain of these resources, of course, become increasingly economically viable.
In terms of the geographical location, we know that there are substantial oil and gas resources in the Beaufort Sea. We also know that in the northwest section of Russia there are also substantial oil and gas resources off shore. There are suspicions that oil and gas go all the way up to the North Pole. We are not entirely sure, because the necessary exploration hasnít taken place. But the suspicions are starting to develop that the oil and gas from the Beaufort Sea and the Russian side basically represent one unified field right across the entire Arctic Ocean.
Could the Russian side potentially contain the majority of the resources?
In all honesty, we donít know. The suspicions are that there is going to be a lot period. Is there going to be more on the Russian side, is there going to be more on our side, is there going to be more on the American side? Once again, the exploration that is being engaged upon has been quite minimal. The Scandinavians two years ago did succeed in doing a test drill at the North Pole, and they were engaging upon the scientific examination of ice cores. But the technology necessary to do an ice core drill and a test for oil and gas is roughly the same. I suspect that the uncertainty that exists today about who owns the oil and gas will probably keep the overall exploration to a minimum. Once the boundaries are resolved and there is some form of understanding, I suspect you will see people getting serious about which side has more oil and gas, where it is located, etc. Of course, all of this is predicated on existing international price of oil and gas. If we start going back to cheap oil and gas, then the reserves will remain untapped. If we remain at 70 plus a barrel, then the sources such as the tar sands in Canada, for example, and the northern oil in the offshore regions start becoming economically possible.
Russian scientists claimed this week that they have definitive proof that North Pole indeed belongs to Russia.
Is this a legitimate claim?
Itís hard to know for certain. There is substantial debate in the scientific literature on to whether or not the Lomonosov ridge, and that is basically what is allowing them to make their claim, is an extension of the continental shelf. The Russians, in terms of their statement this week, are clearly suggesting that the ridge is a continuation of the continental shelf rather than an independent physical entity within the ocean body. They are going to have to show the world their basis of exploration on that claim, and they are going to make convincing scientific arguments that it is an extension. On this point it is a little difficult to know for certain.
Is there a potential conflict between Russia and Finland?
The conflict is not going to come through Russia and Finland, but in all likelihood from Canada, the United States and Denmark. When it comes to the continental shelf, due to the way the lay of land goes for Finland, it doesnít really come into play in this context. Itís the four countries that go to the pole between which there is going to be conflict. The Russians in 2001 or 2002 put in a claim for their continental shelf in which some of the hydro-graphics that were engaged upon were considered questionable. Nevertheless, Canada, the United States, and Denmark all issued political protests in which they said the Russians did not get it correct. Obviously that had an impact, because the Russians have gone back to the drawing board. These recent announcements clearly indicate that the Russians didnít feel that confident with their initial submission. As such, stay tuned as to whether or not the four countries issue renewed statements.
The one thing that may be interesting to track is that both Canada and Denmark on their side of the pole are looking at the other side of that ridge and seeing whether or not on their side it represents an extension of the continental shelf. Both Canada and Denmark have to be a little careful about quickly protesting the Russian declaration, because I strongly suspect that Canada will be including similar arguments on their side of the coin.
The main thing is, of course, the time frame. There are a lot of people are saying that this has suddenly come out of nowhere. This hasnít come out of nowhere. One has to recognize that the concept was negotiated from the period í73 to í82, it took until í94 for the convention to actually come into force. The science is difficult to do. There is no question about it. That is why the convention very clearly says that you have 10 years to do it. We are in the process of it, and we are going to see Canada coming forward saying what its claim is as well as Denmark. The Americans are doing their research too, but they have an interesting problem in that they are not parties not parties of the convention for a whole host of political reasons. The Americans have never signed nor ratified the convention. Bush is now attempting to remedy that. The State Department, the Department of Defense, the American coastal states like California and New England are all in favor of ratification. The problem is in the US Senate because of certain hard line Republicans like Jessie Helms and his subsequent successors. Yet the Americans are moving towards ratification, but itís going to be interesting to see how quickly the Americans can do that. There is the very real possibility that the other three Arctic states will sit down and say Ďwe can wait around a little for the Americans, but we canít wait foreverí. The Americans will be in a situation where they will undoubtedly want to make their claim. But whether or not they can actually play at the table because they are not parties is questionable.
Interview by: Christopher Le Coq
Dr. Robert Huebert is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Associate Director of the Centre Military for Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.
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