The Battle for the North Pole is Heating Up

There is a deep hole under the North Pole said to hide a treasure trove of natural gas, minerals and oil - an estimated 30% of the world's oil reserves - and the countries around it, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, the US - all hope to lay their hands on it.

With the ice cap melting as a result of Climate Change, exploration and drilling for gas and oil has become much easier. And economic. So everyone is scrambling to get a piece of the (icy) cake. And the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is presiding over the scramble.

Sea areas in international rights (Wikipedia)
Under UNCLOS, countries with Arctic coasts can claim offshore territory beyond their 200-nautical mile economic zone, the so called Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) if they can prove underwater geology is an extension of their continental shelf.

Canada was the first to lay a claim (for a reasonable area) but Denmark won the first round in December 2014 by claiming  what appeared to be more than its due by simply pulling Greenland into the picture, adducing that it was a part of Denmark.

And now it looks like Russia is about to win the second round. Ever the wily negotiator, Russia didn't respond to the Danish provocation by claiming all the waters right up to the Canadian and Danish EEZ boundaries (though some Russian hard liners would have liked it to do so).

Instead, it simply re-submitted  a claim it had first submitted in 2001 to UNCLOS (and that had been suspended at the time due to insufficient evidence). It reiterated that some 1.2 million square kilometres in the resource-rich Arctic waters around the North Pole are a "natural prolongation of the Russian land territory" and provided new evidence to bolster its case. That's more than 750,000 square miles of arctic shelf, including the North Pole. UNCLOS is expected to deliver a response this fall.

Cover image of Russian submission report to UNCLOS

Why such laudable restraint on the part of Russia?

First, let's clarify that Russia has gone to extremes to strengthen its arguments.

Russian flag in titanium planted on the arctic seabed
by a robotic arm  (source of photo here
Already in 2007, it had sent submarines to the North Pole, daringly diving to 4,300 meters to collect soil samples and plant a flag.

This daredevil exploration was triumphantly reported on Russian state television  and it instantly upset all the other countries with their own claims on arctic waters.

As reported in the UK Guardian at the time, the Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said "This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say: 'We're claiming this territory'". And he added he wasn't worried, "There is no threat to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic ... we're not at all concerned about this mission. Basically it's just a show by Russia."

Yes, just a show by Russia that is now coming to fruition.

By exercising some restraint in its claims and adducing strong evidence, Russia may be choosing to place itself in an internationally secure position that with UNCLOS approval would enable it to attract the investors it needs to develop its EEZ arctic resources. This at least is the view reported by one of the Polarisk experts in a recent interview to Jane George (see here).

Polarisk, a UK-based consultant group founded in 2012, came out in January with the Polarisk report listing several "hot issues" in the polar regions in 2015. The issues are neatly summed by Jane George here. In a nutshell, they are:

Cover of Polarisk report (here)
1. Russia's Arctic re-militarization program:  beyond military investments, it includes 10 rescue centres established across the Russian Arctic to turn the region into an area “as friendly as possible to economic development.”

 2. “Battle” for the North Pole by the nations bordering the Arctic Ocean like Canada, Russia, the U.S., Denmark and Norway — but also China via investments in Canada, Iceland and Greenland and through its observer status at the Arctic Council. NOTE: Other major world players have also observer status: in Asia: India, South Korea, Japan, Singapore; in Europe: France, UK, Italy, Spain, Netherlands and Poland.

3. Weaponization of the Canadian Arctic: Canada's military presence is felt to be presently insufficient and this will come up as an issue in Canadian elections - however there is a danger according to Polarisk: “the more Ottawa politicians misrepresent, misunderstand or caricature the Canadian Arctic, the harder it will be for them to attract committed investors to its wealthy northern lands.”

4. Risks to investors, resulting from what Polarisk calls "unsustainable developments" (e.g. an oil spill) that could scare away investors for years;

5. Arctic protests:  they include Greenpeace that will continue to go after Shell, and other oil companies, on Arctic drilling activities; and indigenous populations, like the Inuit, who rightly feel major policy decisions cannot be taken without them. As of 2014, six Arctic indigenous communities representing all the major populations in the North have Permanent Participant status at the Arctic Council and they want to be more involved in the UNCLOS negotiations.

6. New Arctic Policy Players: France at COP 21, the United Nations climate talks taking place in Paris in December. France has placed ‘the fate of the Arctic' on the agenda and,  as a the first step towards a formal Arctic strategy, France is expected to publish an Arctic roadmap "later" this spring but I wasn't able to find it.

UPDATE: I was just contacted on Twitter by the head of Polarisk, Mr. Mikå Mered, who informed me that the the "French roadmap" was adjourned sine die and I thank him for letting me know.

Perhaps this "adjournement" is not too surprising: COP 21's agenda is overburdened with "hot issues" and it doesn't seem wise to add to it Arctic issues. Totally unnecessary. Identifying and agreeing on a strategy to address climate change and global warming is not the same thing as deciding what to do with the Arctic Ocean.

On the other hand, this Russian "expansion" in the Arctic is worrisome and could easily degenerate in an unwanted show of force. Let's hope that the UNCLOS process can put a lid on this simmering pot before it boils over...