Russian insights: The Arctic Race
by Alexey Eremenko
The economic crisis made the world concentrate on the here and now, but this doesn’t mean ambitious plans have been abandoned. This is the case with the Arctic race, among other things: on March 23, Russia announced it intends to use its military submarines to explore the northern ocean shelf and defend it (not specified, from whom). It’s the latest move in the game that has been going on since 2006, the other participants being Denmark, Norway and the USA, all wanting to claim for themselves a piece of the Arctic.
The North Pole doesn’t belong to anyone, but there’s a catch. Under the current U.N. convention (not signed by the U.S.), the countries can claim no more than 370 km of the sea adjacent to their land as their exclusive economic zone. But if the seabed is a part of the continental shelf, you can claim all of it, and that’s what the Arctic racers are preparing to do.
The prize is up to 20-30% of the world’s oil and gas predicted to be located in the Polar Regions. In the future the resources may become easier to obtain, because the polar ice cap is shrinking, expected to melt no later than 2100, possibly around 2040. That also opens the possibility of free circumpolar trade, but this is viewed only an additional benefit.
No formal claims have yet been presented to the U.N. There were some mutterings in Russia and the U.S. about claiming the Arctic regardless of the international treaties, but in May 2008 the five polar countries signed the Agreement to abide by existing conventions. Still, that doesn’t mean the settlement is close. The politicians of both Canada and Russia, for instance, talked as if the Arctic already belongs to them, which doesn’t make their future claims convincing, seeing as those are supposed to be based on objective geological evidence, not cocksure diplomacy. Meanwhile, the U.S. spoke obliquely of the region’s important role in the national defence strategy, and Russia plainly admitted it thinks a military conflict over the Arctic is possible.
The current calm before the storm is a good time to review the situation, and hopefully realize its potential to turn into a very fine mess. To be fair, there’s no need to demonize the five governments. Their premise is sensible: resources may become available, but if they’re not claimed now, they’re likely to be lost to other countries, so it’s logical to stay on the safe side. However, like many sensible-sounding premises, this one becomes ugly and irrational when applied to reality.
The problems begin with the main prize itself, which is very much hypothetical. The figures are estimates, and petroleum-related estimates are tricky: there’s no consensus yet even on the total size of the world oil reserves. Furthermore, the benefits will be slow and hard to get. The ice cap is only expected to melt in 30 to 70 years, and the exploring and drilling could take up to another 10-12 years. Russia, for one, doesn’t even own the technologies for offshore drilling, and those are wickedly expensive – which means there may be no profit in that oil.
The race itself seems to be poised to a dead end. Oil and gas are fuel of the present, not future. The crisis won’t last forever, and when it’s over, with the long-term economic growth looking as it does, those types of fuel may very well not be enough for the world economy of 2030, but will certainly be too much for global ecology. When oil was priced at $145 per barrel, the alternative sources of energy were already one step away from being profitable. There’s a good chance that a new type of energy source will be found in foreseeable future, and in that case, scraping for old fields may become no smarter than picking brushwood for fire – even if the desire to believe the situation won’t change is understandable in oil-based economies of Norway and Russia.
There’s a nasty political dimension to the story, too, because it feeds national egotism. “Dibs on the North Pole” is already a bad idea per se, but the talks of breaking conventions and the flexing of military muscles make are even worse. The Poles are about the only places on Earth that haven’t yet been the place of a serious military conflict. Everyone promises to control themselves, but will they be able to?
The Arctic is very useful for nationalist propaganda. There’s hardly a Russian who knows what good will owning the North Pole do to the economy, but when the Russian presidential aide Artur Chilingarov announced “We won’t yield the Arctic to anyone,” the level of public support recalled the good old 1914. Other countries control themselves better, but one fool makes many.
On the other hand, there’s a good example on how to handle such things. In 1959, the signing of the Antarctic Treaty made the southernmost continent a demilitarized, nuclear-free zone that can’t be claimed by any country in part or its entirety. Of course, there are differences between the Arctic and Antarctic regions – Antarctica is a continent, Arctic is a sea – but it’s a question of goodwill.
As things stand, the Arctic race is staving off the future. Sure, nationalism and dirty energy are easier to handle, but the world needs global cooperation, responsible resource/ecology management and new technologies replacing the old, and it’s an objective reality that even the most conservative governments won’t be able to avoid sooner or later. And if so, why delay it?
A good starting point in the new approach to the Arctic race would be an international agreement modeled on the Antarctic one and proclaiming the Arctic to be a sovereign-less zone. After that the countries can look forward to the opening of circumpolar route that would simplify trade and cooperation between all of them. That’s certainly a brighter perspective than a legal/military conflict ready to begin above 80 degrees N latitude as soon as the economic turmoil abates.
About the writer:
Alexey "Hurin" Eremenko is a Moscow-based foreign correspondent for The Canadian. Alexey invites any replies that you have to his column. E-mail:
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