Russia says it must stake claim to Arctic resources

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia must stake its claim to a slice of the Arctic’s vast resources, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council said on Friday at an unprecedented session of the council held on a desolate Arctic island.  Russia, the world’s second biggest oil exporter, is in a race with Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States for control of the oil, gas and precious metals that would become more accessible if global warming shrinks the Arctic ice cap.

Underlining Russia’s claims to the region, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev assembled the defence and interior ministers and the speakers of both houses of parliament for the meeting on the Arctic island, Russian news agencies reported.  Russia, the world’s biggest country, says a whole swathe of the Arctic seabed should belong to it because the area is really an extension of the Siberian continental shelf.

“The Arctic must become Russia’s main strategic resource base,” Russian news agencies quoted Patrushev as saying. The Council usually meets only in Moscow. Patrushev, formerly Russia’s powerful domestic spy chief, said competition from other Arctic powers was increasing and that Russia must strengthen transport links across its Arctic regions to drive development.  Canada, Norway, Russia, the United States and Denmark — which governs Greenland — all have a shoreline within the Arctic Circle, and have a 200-mile (320-km) economic zone around the north of their coastlines.

Russian officials say they are entitled to a bigger share. They base the claim on the contention that the Lomonosov ridge, a vast underwater mountain range that runs underneath the Arctic, is an extension of the Siberian continental shelf.  Under the United Nations Law of the Sea treaty, any state with an Arctic coastline that wishes to stake a claim to a greater share of the Arctic must lodge its submission with the U.N.’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

Russian geologists estimate the Arctic seabed has at least 9 billion to 10 billion tonnes of fuel equivalent, about the same as Russia’s total oil reserves.  Last year a submersible with a senior Russian lawmaker on board planted a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed. The crew were greeted as heroes when they returned to Moscow.  Russian news agencies said the special Security Council session was held at the Nagurskaya base, Russia’s most northerly border outpost. The base is on Alexandra’s Land, part of the Russian-controlled Franz Josef archipelago.


Thaw of polar regions may need new U.N. laws

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO (Reuters) – A new set of United Nations laws may be needed to regulate new Arctic industries such as shipping and oil exploration as climate change melts the ice around the North Pole, legal experts said on Sunday.  They said existing laws governing everything from fish stocks to bio-prospecting by pharmaceutical companies were inadequate for the polar regions, especially the Arctic, where the area of summer sea ice is now close to a 2007 record low.   “Many experts believe this new rush to the polar regions is not manageable within existing international law,” said A.H. Zakri, Director of the U.N. University’s Yokohama-based Institute of Advanced Studies.

Fabled shipping passages along the north coast of Russia and Canada, normally clogged by thick ice, have both thawed this summer, raising the possibility of short-cut routes between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Dozens of legal experts are meeting in Iceland from September 7-9 to debate the legal needs of the polar regions. Other threats include a surge in tourism, with 40,000 visitors to Antarctica in 2007 against just 1,000 in 1987.  Many legal specialists believe there is a lack of clarity in existing laws about shipping, mining, sharing of fish stocks drawn northwards by the melting of ice, and standards for clearing up any oil spills far from land.

“Oil in particular and risks of shipping in the Arctic are big issues. It’s incredibly difficult to clean up an oil spill on ice,” said conference chairman David Leary of the Institute of Advanced Studies, which is organizing the conference with Iceland’s University of Akureyri.  “The question is: do we deal with it in terms of the existing laws or move to a new, more global framework for the polar regions?” he told Reuters.


Some experts say the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea is unclear, for instance, when it speaks of the rights of states to impose restrictions — such as compulsory pilots for ships — off their coasts in “particularly severe climatic conditions” or when ice covers the sea for “most of the year.”  With the ice receding fast, defining what conditions are “particularly severe” could be a problem, said law professor Tullio Scovazzi of the University of Milano-Bicocca.  Leary said the eight nations with Arctic territories — the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland — have so far preferred to limit discussion to existing international laws.

The WWF environmental group is among those urging a new U.N. convention to protect the Arctic, partly fearing that rising industrial activity will increase the risk of oil spills like the Exxon Valdez accident off Alaska.  “We think there should be new rules, stricter rules. We are proposing a new convention for the protection of the Arctic Ocean,” said Tatiana Saksina of the WWF.

Alaska’s state governor Sarah Palin, Republican vice presidential candidate in November 4’s U.S. election, is an advocate of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.   A boom in tourism in Antarctica meanwhile risks the accidental introduction of new species to an environment where the largest land creature is a flightless midge.  Bio-prospecting may also need new rules. Neural stem cells of Arctic squirrels could help treat human strokes, while some Arctic fish species have yielded enzymes that can be used in industrial processes.

Arctic claimants say they will obey U.N. rules

By Kim McLaughlin

ILULISSAT, Greenland (Reuters) – Five Arctic coastal nations agreed on Wednesday to let the U.N. rule on conflicting territorial claims on the region’s seabed, which may hold up to one fourth of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon reserves.

“We affirmed our commitment to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told a news conference.  Ministers from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States met in Greenland for a two-day summit to discuss sovereignty over the Arctic Ocean seabed.  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. The rules aim to fix shelves’ outer limits on a clear geological basis, but have created a tangle of overlapping Arctic claims.

The United States has not yet ratified the convention, but Negroponte urged Congress to do so as soon as possible.  The countries, most major oil exporters, agreed to settle conflicting territorial claims by the law until a U.N. body could rule on the disputes.  Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller called the meeting in his country’s self-governing province to try to end squabbling over ownership of huge tracts of the Arctic seabed, although it will be several decades before oil drilling in the deep Arctic sea is feasible.

Also attending were Greenland Premier Hans Enoksen, Russian and Norwegian Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and Jonas Gahr Stoere and Canadian Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn.  “The declaration reflects the will of all participants to resolve all issues which might evolve in the spirit of cooperation and on the basis of international law,” said Lavrov.  Russia last summer angered the other Arctic nations by planting a flag on the seabed under the North Pole, an incident Lavrov dismissed as insignificant on Wednesday.


Environmental groups were not invited and have criticized the scramble for the Arctic, saying it will damage unique animal habitats. They call for a treaty similar to that regulating the Antarctic, which bans military activity and mineral mining.   “It is insane to view the crisis of the melting of the Arctic ice simply as an opportunity to carve up the resources that are currently protected under the ice,” Greenpeace Nordic campaigner, Lindsay Keenan, told Reuters.  Greenpeace said the world already had four times more fossil fuel reserves than it could afford to burn.

“They are going to use the law of the sea to carve up the raw materials, but they are ignoring the law of common sense. These are the same fossil fuels that are driving climate change in the first place,” Keenan said.   The five nations agreed however that no special Arctic treaty was necessary, saying in the declaration there was no need to develop a new international legal regime.  The talks also focused on the effects of climate change felt by people of the Arctic, and covered cooperation over accidents, maritime security and oil spills.

Scientists believe rising temperatures could leave most of the Arctic ice-free in the summer months in a few decades’ time.  As the ice sheet shrinks, icebergs will form and threaten shipping, which may increase because the Northwest Passage will open and allow a quicker route.  “The safety of life requires that we cooperate on search and rescue operations and maintain regular communications to respond to accidents and environmental emergencies,” Negroponte said.

Greenland summit to discuss carve-up of Arctic

By Kim McLaughlin

COPENHAGEN (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 criticized 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 zones if it is part of a continental shelf of shallower waters.


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. espite 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 criticized 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.

U.S. reassures Brazil on territorial waters and fleet

By Raymond Colitt

BRASILIA (Reuters) – The United States will respect Brazil’s maritime claims, including offshore oil reserves, and will use a new naval fleet in Latin America mostly for peaceful purposes, the U.S. commander for the region said on Thursday.  The head of Brazil’s oil market regulator had said on Wednesday he was worried the United States might contest the country’s rights over huge oil reserves lying in a so-called exclusive economic zone.  “The United States will respect the territorial seas and exclusive economic zones of nations of the world,” Adm. James Stavridis, head of the U.S. Southern Command, told reporters in Brasilia when asked about Brazil’s concern.

The 1994 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the United States has signed but not ratified, says coastal states have exclusive economic zones extending 200 nautical miles, where they enjoy exclusive rights over all natural resources.  The U.S. Fourth Fleet, which the Navy is re-establishing 58 years after decommissioning it, will help combat drug trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean, Stavridis said at the end of a defense conference.  But this did not indicate an upsurge in counter-narcotics operations, Stavridis said.  “It is not an offensive force in any way,” he said.

Acknowledging the fleet had been “a subject of concern” in the region, the admiral said it would mainly support peacekeeping missions, aid in natural disasters, provide humanitarian relief and take part in naval exercises.  “The largest ship that will work for the Fourth Fleet is a hospital ship,” Stavridis said.  Brazil is not concerned about the new fleet, Brazilian Adm. Marcos Martins Torres said.

Senate Foreign Relations Passes LOS Treaty

By Kevin Drawbaugh

WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) – A Senate panel voted on Wednesday in favor of ratifying an international pact on ocean shipping and deep-sea mining that has languished in Congress for years because critics say it could hurt naval operations and industry.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 17-4 to back the accord, sending it to the full Senate where it needs a two-thirds vote to win final approval.  President George W. Bush wants the Senate to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, saying it would allow U.S. armed forces to move freely on the oceans.  More than 150 nations have already joined the 25-year-old pact.

Some Republicans and other critics have argued it would hurt U.S security by overemphasizing peaceful use of the oceans. They cite limits it would impose on collecting intelligence and submarine operations in territorial waters.   Some also have criticized provisions they say would restrict U.S. sovereignty, impose new environmental obligations and thwart commercial development of the deep seabed.  Critics add that the accord would set global rules discouraging deep-sea mining of minerals such as cobalt and manganese.


Supporters say the treaty ensures the U.S. military will not need a “permission slip” in the future to pass through the territorial waters of other nations, while guaranteeing the freedom of navigation for the world’s shipping industry.  Joining the treaty also gives the United States a seat at the table to resolve disputes, such as those that could arise over new sea lanes opening up in the Arctic, supporters say.  The treaty guarantees U.S. access to oil, natural gas and other natural resources extending 200 miles (322 km) out from the U.S. shoreline — an area covering nearly 300,000 square miles (776,900 sq km).

“We should become a party to the convention,” said committee Chairman Joseph Biden, a Delaware senator and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.  “The oil and gas industry is unanimous in its support of the convention … . I’m unaware of any ocean industry that has expressed opposition to this treaty,” Biden said.  Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, one of four senators voting in opposition, said he had concerns about dispute resolutions and international seabed authority.

The U.S. Navy already follows many of the rules established by the treaty and backs ratification. It says the treaty will give sailors greater protection under international law.  U.S. ratification also should draw other nations into related partnerships, the Navy said on Wednesday, citing the Proliferation Security Initiative that allows the United States and allies to search ships suspected of carrying weapons.  Specifically, Indonesia and Malaysia have told the U.S. military they will join that initiative if the United States ratifies the Law of the Sea treaty, according to Rear Adm. Bruce MacDonald, judge advocate general of the Navy.

“This goes to bringing other nations on board with other kinds of agreements that we want them to join us on,” he said.   MacDonald noted the ranks of nations that also had not signed onto the treaty included U.S. adversaries.  “Let me tell you who we’re with,” he said. “We’re with Syria not signing. We’re with Libya. We’re with Iran. We’re with North Korea.” (Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts)

President Bush Endorses LOS Treaty

I am acting to advance U.S. interests in the world’s oceans in two important ways.

First, I urge the Senate to act favorably on U.S. accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea during this session of Congress.  Joining will serve the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of our armed forces worldwide.  It will secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain.  Accession will promote U.S. interests in the environmental health of the oceans.  And it will give the United States a seat at the table when the rights that are vital to our interests are debated and interpreted.

Second, I have instructed the U.S. delegation to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to submit a proposal for international measures that would enhance protection of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the area including the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Last June, I issued a proclamation establishing the Monument, a 1,200-mile stretch of coral islands, seamounts, banks, and shoals that are home to some 7,000 marine species.  The United States will propose that the IMO designate the entire area as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) –- similar to areas such as the Florida Keys, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Galapagos Archipelago –- which will alert mariners to exercise caution in the ecologically important, sensitive, and hazardous area they are entering.  This proposal, like the Convention on the Law of the Sea, will help protect the maritime environment while preserving the navigational freedoms essential to the security and economy of every nation.