Unchartered waters

By bne IntelliNews August 3, 2007

Derek Brower in London -

Russia's ambitions to spread its influence as an energy superpower took a new twist Thursday, August 2 when deep-sea divers planted a capsule carrying the country’s flag on the seabed of the Arctic Ocean. That might have been no more than a symbolic act, but analysts say the intention is clearly to assert Russia’s claims to the Arctic – and the oil and gas riches it might hold.

It isn't the only country with an eye on the frozen north. Canada recently put some $8bn towards a new fleet of patrol ships to monitor Arctic waters over which it also claims jurisdiction. Norway, Denmark – through Greenland – and the US also lay claim to parts of the ocean. But Russia’s act is the boldest yet.

An expedition of scientists and geologists led by Duma deputy and explorer Artur Chilingarov arrived at the North Pole earlier in the week, having followed a path cut by a nuclear-powered ice breaker. Two mini-submarines descended 4,200 metres to the seabed, where a titanium capsule holding the Russian flag was deposited on the ground.

Linking the expedition to the ambition to exploit the ocean's oil and gas, a Gazprom spokesman told Ekho Moskvy radio that the company would begin an aggressive exploration programme on the Arctic Shelf. "Less than 5% of the Arctic has been explored," he said, "and we are sure that major new discoveries will follow."

On what ground the company bases such faith is not clear. No one knows yet how much oil and gas lies in the Arctic. But sedimentary basins that have been studied suggest the geology could bear "hydrocarbon kitchens" – subsurface zones with sufficient pressure and temperature to create oil and gas, according to Lindsay Parson, head of the Law of the Sea Group at the University of Southampton.

The US Geological Survey (USGS), considered in the energy industry to be the authority on world hydrocarbon reserves, speculates that the Arctic could hold at least 25% of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas reserves, which stood at 649bn barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic metres of gas in 2000.

"We don’t have the definitive study yet," Jon Kolak, from the USGS, told bne. But he points out that the 2000 recent survey only accounted for a portion of the Arctic, suggesting the ocean's true share of remaining undiscovered oil reserves could be far higher – or lower.

Whether Russia or any other of the Arctic's littoral states will be able to tap those reserves, however, is debatable. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries with maritime borders have the right to engage in economic activities only within 200 miles of their coastline. "The planting of the flag has no meaning in international law," says Parson. "It’s more to do with hype than to do with maritime law."

The long ridge

One way around UNCLOS could be for Russia to prove that its border stretches closer to the North Pole than recognised internationally – or as close to the pole as Soviet textbooks used to claim. To do this, the recent expedition has been collecting geological data from the Lomonosov Ridge, which stretches underneath the Arctic. If an Unclos panel in New York were to accept that the ridge was an extension of the Russian landmass, its claim to the Arctic would succeed.

Meanwhile, says Parson, Canadian geologists are also collecting data from the Arctic – and also from the Lomonosov ridge, which stretches into its territory, too. Extending the same logic about the ridge being used by the Russian geologists, says Parson, could allow Canada to make the same claim to the Arctic – or to the entire Eurasian continent itself.

The best solution could be a joint development zone to share the Arctic and its hydrocarbons between its littoral states. Such an agreement could proceed under UNCLOS, say experts, provided the US ratify the agreement. Washington has refused to do so up to now.

Even if such a treaty were agreed, though, there remains the tricky task of finding any oil and gas and bringing it to market. Russia says that global warming could help, as ice-cap melting could make the ocean easier to navigate. But for the time being, Russia and anyone else greedy for the Arctic’s riches could be frozen out. If that is the case, the expedition might be just another statement of Russian prowess, as well as a research mission yielding more information about one of the world’s remaining untouched wildernesses.

In European capitals, it was the source of yet more panic about Moscow's geopolitical ambitions, prompting talk of a new cold war race. In Russia, it was a proud technological achievement being compared to landing on the moon. "What those guys have done is scientifically and logistically tremendous," says Parsons.

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