Santa and the Energy Ho-Ho-Hos

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 8/13/2007 11:35:00 AM
The chart above depicts the diminishing extent of Arctic sea ice from 1900 to the present (click for larger image). To me, there is something rather distasteful about countries like (count 'em!) the United States, Russia, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark fighting over territorial rights to oil-rich areas in the Arctic that have been exposed through global warming. If the planet is Mother Earth, these countries are like children fighting over their assumed inheritances while waiting for mum's final farewell. That's just the way it is.

It is estimated that a quarter of the world's oil and gas reserves are to be found at the North Pole. Ben Muse over at his eponymous blog has a ton of stuff on this Arctic land grab. Being from Alaska (I think), I'll leave it to him to scout out the (nearby) territory. Also, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a wealth of material on Arctic climate change. The angle that interests me most is the environmental one. Through the Daily Green, I found this recent write-up by William Chapman of the Polar Research Group at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. It begins like this:
Today, the Northern Hemisphere sea ice area broke the record for the lowest ice area in recorded history. The new record came a full month before the historic summer minimum typically occurs. There is still a month or more of melt likely this year. It is therefore almost certain that the previous 2005 record will be annihilated by the final 2007 annual minima closer to the end of this summer.
And so it is that global warming has made thoughts about drilling for oil in the North Pole possible. The Norwegian environmental group the Bellona Foundation raises concerns that developing an oil exploration infrastructure in the Arctic can cause great damage to its ecosystem, one of the few remaining pristine areas in the world. Will greed spoil the Arctic? One would hope that an environmentally considerate plan could be drawn up for oil exploration in the area. Given the geopolitical infighting this issue has already caused, however, I wouldn't bet a whole lot on such a favorable outcome being achieved:
...participating countries are faced with a tough question: Is opening new oil and gas fields and trade routes worth letting global warming run its course unhindered by human efforts to stem climate change?

Russia seems to be answering in the affirmative. Despite the fact that Moscow ratified the Kyoto Protocol, it does not intend to take part in further greenhouse gas reductions after the Protocol runs out in 2014. Several Russian politicians have also said in recent months that climate change would make fertile the permafrost regions that cover much of Siberia throughout the year.

Another question is whether nations and can be pushed to find the clean and renewable energy sources many of them have pledged to implement if they do indeed tap into the vast underwater oil fields of the Arctic -which could flood petrol markets and make the search for clean energy less pressing...

Even if the involved countries are some time from striking oil, the increased level of activity in the fragile Arctic ecosystem could suffer from increased traffic and maritime activity.

“The richness of the Artic lies primarily in its biological resources, not in its oil and gas supplies,” said Nina Lesikhina, coordinator of energy programmes with Bellona-Murmansk.

“The ecosystem of the sea of the Arctic Shelf is unique.”

Leskikhina said the northern ecosystem is extremely sensitive to the effects of pollution, and rehabilitating damaged areas is time consuming. At the moment, the Arctic is relatively clean, but there are nevertheless growing sign of pollution.

“The assumed development of (oil) reserved on the Arctic Shelf under conditions of insufficient scientific knowledge, experience and ecological safety could lead to catastrophic results for northern nature,” Leskhina said.

“All of this need to be considered before any activities are undertaken in the Arctic.”
UPDATE: The Financial Times notes that the designated arbiter to claims to Arctic territory is a heretofore little-known UN body called the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. International relations junkies aside, it is known to few that the US is not a signatory to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which makes it difficult for the US to lodge claims at the Commission. This presents the US with an interesting quandary: go it alone on claiming Arctic territory Iraqi-invasion style and alienate the world community again or respectfully submit to UN authority? Choices, choices...

The international battle for Arctic territory may look like a Wild West brawl but the real fight for supremacy is more likely to revolve around legal arguments and seismic data than showdowns between ice-breakers or submarines.

As Canada unveils plans for a military base and Russia drops a titanium flag on the seabed, lawyers say the real centre of action is an obscure United Nations-hosted body known as the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

The commission is the global authority that will determine how much territory the big five Arctic seabed claimants – Canada, Russia, the US, Denmark and Norway – will be able to bag for oil exploration and other uses.

Robert Volterra, a partner at Latham & Watkins, the law firm, says cases pleaded by states at the commission over the coming years are likely to have more impact on the Arctic’s future than “symbolic” flag-planting intended for Russian domestic political consumption.

“There is a consistent body of public international law,” Mr Volterra says. “It’s not like the age of discovery, where the European voyager went out and said: ‘I claim this land on behalf of the Queen of England or the King of Spain.’”

Lawyers and scientists say Russia’s latest Arctic mission was most significant for the opportunity it provided to gather more geological and geophysical data to support its quest to extend its territorial rights. Russia and Norway have lodged claims for territorial extensions with the continental shelf commission; marine lawyers expect Canada and Denmark to follow suit.

The commission, which is made up of scientists and legal experts, is responsible for implementing the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the key international agreement in this area.

Unclos gives countries the right to exploit the seabed up to 200 nautical miles offshore, with the option of an extension if they can prove to the commission that the continental shelves emanating from their coasts go farther still out to sea.

States must make these claims for extra miles within 10 years of applying the treaty, which means Canada has until 2013 and Denmark until 2014 to launch a case.

The complication with Unclos is Washington’s reluctance – not for the first time – to submit to UN authority by ratifying a treaty approved by much of the rest of the world.

Lawyers say this creates a dilemma for the US. While it retains autonomy by staying out of the treaty, this potentially limits its seabed claims to the 200-mile limit allowed it under customary international law.

Politicians in Washington have stepped up a campaign to persuade the US Congress to embrace Unclos and so ensure that Washington has a say in the adjudication of Arctic disputes.

President George W. Bush has called on the Senate to ratify the treaty to “secure US sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain”, as well as giving Washington formal negotiating rights.

But the treaty once rejected by President Ronald Reagan continues to repel some conservatives, who see it as an attempt to subordinate US sovereignty to supranational entities.

Doug Bandow, a former administration official who took part in negotiations on the treaty on behalf of Mr Reagan, has argued that it would establish “what looks like a second UN”.