A week ago, Russian explorers laid claim to the mineral wealth of the Arctic by planting their country’s flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole, in a move described as “heroic” by Robert Nigmatulin, head of Russia’s Institute of Oceanic Studies.
However, Russian experts have conceded that this symbolic claim must be decided by the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, provided scientists are able to determine whether the continental shelf extends to the area under the pole: “These rock formations are going to be the only solid proof of Russia’s claim”, Nigmatulin commented from Moscow. “Only after that will it be appropriate to raise the legal issues about the claims of neighbouring states to that ground.” Drilling deep enough into the seabed to assess the continental shelf will not be possible until at least 2013.
Russian geologists estimate the Arctic seabed has at least 9 – 10 billion tons of fuel equivalent, about the same as Russia’s total oil reserves, so the claim is a potentially very valuable one. Norway and Denmark (acting on behalf of its colonial interest in Greenland) are expected to make their own bids for the polar territory, which had previously been divided between neighbouring nations including Canada and the US by an international treaty.
The accelerated shrinking of the polar ice cap caused by global warming has sparked a new oil rush in the arctic, by enabling exploration that was previously unthinkable because of the extreme conditions.
Critics fear that Russia wish to use their claim to arctic oil reserves as a weapon for its aggressive foreign policy, after the Kremlin-run Gazprom this week threatened to cut off gas supplies to Belarus in a re-run of the economic bullying of Ukraine in 2006 that affected further supplies to Europe. If Russia had carried out its threat, gas supplies to Germany and Poland would definitely have been at risk.
Conflicts like this remind us that it is imperative to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels as quickly as possible. As reserves dwindle, international struggles over claims to mineral deposits and supplies can only worsen.