Who owns the Arctic?
Until the ice began to melt, this question did not grip us. Now, with the irresistible shipping, economic, and resource opportunities that are emerging with the prospect of a melted Arctic Ocean, everything has changed. And it looks like ‘Business as Usual‘, the one scanario of the near future that is most short-sighted.
The five countries who have Arctic coastline – Russia, Canada, Denmark, USA and Norway – have sent in whatever they can to stake their claims, including navy ships, subs, and ice bound military maneuvers. Most of the boundaries stretching out to 200 miles from the coastlines have now been established, but critical issues remain.
Of great concern, Russia, Canada and Denmark are all claiming parts of the remaining international High Seas centered over the North Pole. Making their claims possible is the Lomonosov Ridge. It extends from the continental shelf of Russia, across the North Pole, to the edge of the continental shelf of Canada and Denmark’s Greenland. All three countries claim this should extend their Exclusive Economic Zones far beyond the 200 mile limit, even as far as the North Pole. Like other irresolvable territorial disputes, this will eventually be settled by the International Court of Justice at The Hague, according to the principles of the UN Law of the Sea.
Meanwhile the other three countries of the Arctic Council – Iceland, Sweden, Finland – demand to be included in discussions about ownership and development. So do the Inuit. And just in case we think the Arctic nations will somehow work this out by themselves, other countries are preparing to be involved. South Korea is building ice breakers. China is no doubt preparing as well.
At issue are rights to fisheries, whose future is unknown, and rights to oil and gas deposits that are expected to be immense. The stakes are high. Extensive drilling in the Arctic is a certainty. The current catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico should delay some of the planned exploration and drilling, and regulations are likely to be improved and even enforced. But the oil and gas will be exploited.
At the same time, international shipping will use the Northwest Passage. Existing seaports will grow, and new ones will be established. A whole new piece of the planet will be opened up to what we do best – exploitation and development.
Still, there is another route we can follow, an alternative to uncontrolled and competitive growth and exploitation. Leaving the Arctic alone and untouched, ‘owned’ by no nation, is of course impossible, a dream of the impractical environmental idealist. Yet controlled, slow, careful, cooperative and responsible development and exploitation is possible. It need not be ‘Business as usual’.
And what an opportunity this is. Learning from the mountain of mistakes we have made over the past hundred years, we can treat the Arctic the way we should have treated the rest of the planet. We haven’t yet wrecked the place. We’re smart enough to know how to do it right.
Surely it isn’t too late. Yet.