Black Gold under the Ice The Race for the Arctic Seabed Arrives in Greenland

A number of countries want the oil that might lie beneath the floor of the Arctic Ocean. Five of them are meeting this week to establish some ground rules for the land grab.


It's hardly a town known for high-level, international diplomacy. Indeed, among those who are aware of its existence, the tiny town of Ilulissat, located halfway up the west coast of Greenland, is notable more for its proximity to one of the world's fastest moving glaciers than for playing host to world decision makers.

Ilulissat is known more for beautiful view of calving Greenland glaciers than for top-level diplomacy.
AP

Ilulissat is known more for beautiful view of calving Greenland glaciers than for top-level diplomacy.

On Tuesday, though, representatives from five countries bordering on the Arctic Ocean are gathering in the town for three days of discussions on the future of the Arctic. Geologists estimate that, beneath the ice that still covers much of the Arctic Ocean, up to a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves can be found. And recently, the race to claim those reserves has been heating up.

The talks, hosted by Denmark and attended by Norway, Russia, Canada and the United States, are aimed at beginning a process to settle overlapping and competing claims to bits of seabed. Geologists estimate that melting ice will make oil drilling in the Arctic possible within decades. Finding out who will be profiting from that drilling has become a priority. Participants are also hoping to agree on ways to factor environmental and social concerns into the rush for resources.

But even as the diplomats -- Denmark, Norway and Russia are sending their foreign ministers, Canada's Natural Resources Minister is attending and the US is sending Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte -- try to remove the bile from the growing conflict, it is likely the scientists who will have the greatest say.

The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention stipulates that coastal countries own the seabed beyond the established 200 nautical mile zone if it can be determined that the seabed is part of the continental shelf. Russia made the first move last summer by planting a flag on the ocean floor beneath the North Pole. Scientists from Russia have also been busy trying to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range that cuts across the Arctic Ocean, is geologically part of the Russian mainland.

Denmark, however, also has its eyes on the ridge, claiming it is an extension of Greenland, which is a self-governing province of Denmark. And earlier this week, Canadian scientists submitted a paper to the prestigious Journal of Geophyiscal Research in an attempt to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is part of the North American land mass.

"The initial indications are, yes, the results are very positive," Dr. Jacob Verhoef, director of the Geological Survey of Canada's Atlantic division, told Canwest News Service. "If it is peer-reviewed and accepted for publication, then it is solid scientifically. That is where we are at the moment."

Canada recently approved $40 million to conduct research aimed at establishing Candadian ownership of the Lomonosov Ridge. "We will be reaffirming our commitment about defending and protecting our sovereignty in the Arctic," Canadian Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn told the Toronto daily Globe and Mail on Monday. "It is a priority for our government."

Denmark and Canada have also bickered in the past over claims to tiny Hans Island. Should Arctic ice recede as predicted, the so-called Northwest Passage would open up, cutting the distance from the east coast of North America to Asia by thousands of miles. Hans Island lies in the path of the Passage. Canada has held military exercises in the region to emphasize its claim to the rock.

Denmark is hoping that all five states will commit to abiding by UN rules, despite the fact that the US has still not ratified the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. Both Denmark and Norway have said that an additional treaty to regulate seafloor claims in the Arctic are not necessary.

cgh/reuters

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