The current ‘race’ for the Arctic is about oil, gas and shipping. But in concrete, legal terms, what Canada and Russia have to gain, or lose, is something called the Lomonosov Ridge. This underwater mountain ridge passes pretty much smack dab through the centre of the Arctic Ocean, extending 1800km from the New Siberian Islands to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and is the subject of upcoming competing legal submissions to the UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).
The brouhaha over Lomonosov started when the Russians claimed a large portion of the ridge as an extension of their continental shelf in 2001, thereby claiming a huge swathe of Arctic seabed. The claim came as a result of the process developed in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. UNCLOS grants all states the rights to living and non-living resources within the area up to 200 miles from their coastline, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ. But UNCLOS also contains a provision that grants states the right to the minerals and non-living resources of the seabed of their continental shelf beyond the EEZ – up to 350 miles from the coastline, should the shelf extend that far. As a result, Canada and Russia (and Denmark) are arguing that the Lomonosov is an extension of their respective continental shelves in the hopes of getting the sovereign rights to that portion of the Arctic sea bed.
Look closely at a map of the Arctic and you may notice that Canada and Russia are more than 700 miles apart at their closest points. You might think that that means both countries can get their 350 mile extension without dispute. However the provisions of UNCLOS provide that in some special geological circumstances, which apparently apply to Lomonosov, the shelf can extend beyond 350 miles. Hence the intense scientific and legal efforts.
So Canada and Russia are pouring tens of millions of dollars into mapping and cataloguing the geological character of the Lomonosov; the media is portraying the ridge as the primary objective for current and future disputes over the Arctic; and the Lomonosov was the top subject in a meeting between Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannnon and Russian Foreign Minister Minister Sergei Lavrov in September. So the Lomonosov must be tremendously valuable, right?
While we still know relatively little about the Arctic sea floor, the authoritative assessment of oil and gas potential in the region from the US Geological Survey is downright bearish on the potential in and around the Lomonosov Ridge and the North Pole. In fact almost all of the expected reserves in the Arctic are to be found within the respective Arctic states’ 200 mile EEZ.
Even assuming that they are wrong and there are significant reserves around the Lomonosov Ridge, how in the world would they be exploited? The Arctic sea floor is the most remote location on the planet. It is hundreds of miles from coastlines that are hundreds of miles from cities, roads and ports. It is ice-covered, and will continue to be ice-covered during the long Arctic winter months for the long term. The much-ballyhooed Russian planting of a titanium flag at the North Pole in 2007 was celebrated/criticized as an attempt to stake Arctic territory. Lost in the mix was how it demonstrated the extreme scientific and technical challenge of simply dropping a 50lb flagpole in the Lomonosov region – let alone successfully drilling and exploiting oil and gas there!
If, for argument’s sake, it becomes feasible and profitable to drill at the seabed of the North Pole, what would the world above look like? One where the world’s reserves of oil are almost completely depleted, and where global warming has changed the planet’s climate enough to have melted the Arctic polar ice cap. Presumably at this stage of the game humans are back to wearing loincloths and eating charred gophers Mad-Max style, and the legal particulars about the status of the extended Arctic continental shelf is no longer a primary matter of concern.
In short, Russia and Canada are wrangling over the worst piece of real estate on the planet.
What should be done with this information? On the one hand, scientific efforts to map the region will be helpful for a variety of reasons and should be continued on their own merits. And if the process is largely a bureaucratic, legalistic one with scientific claims, government lawyers and UN officials, then not much harm can or should be done. The danger lies in projecting onto the Lomonosov Ridge the country’s ambitions for its Arctic sovereignty, and what that may mean if we ultimately lose our claim (although the process will likely take years or even a decade.) Let’s protect our Arctic environment; let’s support our northern citizens. But let’s not get worked up over some lines in the Arctic seabed floor.