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September 22, 2010

Putin Stresses Cooperation in Arctic Resources Disputes

by James Brooke

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Thursday that disputes over the resource rich Arctic Ocean that is believed to hold as much as a quarter of the Earth's undiscovered oil and gas, can be resolved through dialogue.  Our correspondent reports from an international Arctic conference in Moscow.

Three years after Russia planted its flag on the seabed under the North Pole, Prime Minister Putin told the conference that differences over the Arctic can be resolved without conflict.

He said it is imperative to keep the Arctic "a zone of peace and cooperation."

Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway have been trying to assert jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic Ocean.

A new U.S. government study indicates that one quarter of the Earth's untapped oil and gas reserves are locked beneath the floor of the Arctic Ocean.  Another U.S. study says that by 2030, global warming could leave the North Pole ice-free during the summer, turning the previously inaccessible region into a potentially rich source of oil, gas and other natural resources.

The Russian prime minister told the conference that "very serious economic and geopolitical interests intersect in the Arctic."  But he added that he had no doubt that "all the problems existing in the Arctic, including problems over the continental shelf can be resolved through an atmosphere of partnership."

Leaders of NATO's Arctic countries have been skeptical of Russia's approach to solving Arctic sovereignty disputes.  But analysts say Mr. Putin came to the Arctic meeting with new credibility.

Last week, Russia and Norway signed a maritime border agreement, after 40 years of negotiations.  The accord divides in half an area about 175,000 square kilometers, opening up a section of the Barents Sea to oil and gas exploration.

For Olav Orheim, head of the Research Council of Norway, the end of the boundary dispute is a major step.

''In Norwegian terms, that is the most significant event that happened in Norway since Norway signed with NATO more than 50 years ago," said Olav Orheim.

Analysts say that Russia's next big Arctic territorial dispute will likely be with Canada and Denmark, which handles foreign affairs and security for Greenland.

By 2014, the three nations are expected to file rival bids for unclaimed waters and seabed rights around the North Pole.

Russia says its continental shelf extends across the North Pole, following the Lomonosov Ridge - an underwater mountain range that extends from Siberia to Greenland.

Moscow announced this week that it will spend $64 million to gather data on the ridge.

Michael Byers, an expert on global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia in Canada, says the Russians will not win legal points for having named underwater geographical features.

"The issue of the extent of the continental shelf jurisdiction in the central Arctic Ocean will not be determined by power or politics," said Michael Byers. "Russia, Canada and all the other Arctic Ocean counties have agreed to use the Law of the Sea convention to resolve any of these issues and those procedures are entirely legal and scientific in character.  So Russia will collect scientific data on the shape and the sediments of the ocean floor.  Canada will do the same."

The day after Russia and Norway signed their border agreement, Canada's Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon visited Moscow.  In a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Cannon forcefully reasserted Canada's rival claim to the disputed Arctic region.