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As a fuel-hungry globe warms, the Arctic beckons Russia

The Kremlin is working to establish its right to a portion of the oil and gas believed to lie under the melting ice cap.

June 17, 2007|Alex Rodriguez | Chicago Tribune

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — A new Klondike may be waiting at the top of the world, where geologists believe a quarter of the globe's undiscovered oil and natural gas lies trapped within rock strata underneath the ice-encased Arctic Ocean.

It's a trove of energy wealth that sits unowned and unexplored, a bonanza being readied for a rush of claims thanks to climate change. Global warming is steadily wearing away the polar cap, scientists say, making the advent of Arctic energy exploration increasingly likely.

Inside a dingy four-story building in the heart of St. Petersburg, a team of scientists is working feverishly to prove that a large portion of that energy is rightfully Russia's.

If geologists at the Russian Research Institute for Ocean Geology and Mineral Resources are right, the Kremlin could add as many as 10 billion tons of Arctic oil and natural gas to reserves that already make Russia one of the world's most formidable energy powerhouses.

The Arctic's potential storehouse of oil and gas probably won't be tapped for decades. But Moscow is looking ahead to a time when depleted oil and natural gas fields will force energy suppliers to scour for new hydrocarbon sources, even if they're under the polar ice cap.

"Experts say that after 2016, oil production will drop tremendously," said Anatoly Opekunov, the institute's deputy director. "Every country, including Russia and the U.S., is thinking about this."

Russia's eagerness to secure the rights to Arctic energy worries many policymakers in Washington, who argue that the U.S. is powerless to intervene while it remains mired in a 13-year debate over ratification of a United Nations treaty governing international maritime rights.

That pact, the Law of the Sea Treaty, is viewed by many as the world's primary means of settling disputes over exploitation rights and navigational routes in international waters. Russia and 152 other nations have ratified it.

U.S. lawmakers who oppose the treaty have held up its ratification in Congress since 1994, arguing that signing the pact cedes too much power to the United Nations. Proponents say that if the U.S. doesn't ratify it, Russia's bid for the Arctic's energy wealth will go unchallenged.

"Russia has, under the terms of the treaty, laid claim to stretches of the Arctic Ocean, hoping to lock up potential oil and gas reserves which could become more accessible as climate change shrinks the polar ice cap," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) in a recent statement. "Unless the U.S. ratifies the treaty, Moscow will be able to press its claims without an American at the table."

Environmentalists, who have opposed oil exploration in Arctic regions of the U.S., see the prospect of a future oil rush as a twisted result of governmental failure to address climate change.

"As long as we have weaker fuel-efficiency standards than China, we're going to be faced with ridiculous ideas like this," said Bruce Nilles, an attorney who leads the Sierra Club's Midwest Clean Air Campaign.

It was once thought that the ice cap would keep the Arctic Ocean's billions of tons of oil and natural gas forever entombed. Global warming, however, is shearing off sections of the ice cap at a rate of 9% each decade, kindling interest among oil companies in the world's last energy frontier.

"Within technical oil industry circles, the Arctic is becoming a hot topic," analysts Neil McMahon and Oswald Clint wrote in a recent report by Bernstein Research, a U.S. investment analysis firm. "While widespread hydrocarbon production is some time away, an initial foray

In the quest for Arctic energy, Russia is making sure it's not left behind.

Russia already is home to the world's largest storehouse of natural gas reserves and is the world's second-leading oil producer behind Saudi Arabia. Its willingness to use that energy clout as political leverage against the West has become a hallmark of Kremlin foreign policy -- and a worrisome sign for many European leaders who argue that their countries have grown overdependent on Russian oil and natural gas.

The Kremlin's Arctic claim involves a 463,222-square-mile triangular swath of ocean that stretches from the North Pole to waters above eastern Siberia and Russia's Chukotka Peninsula. That section of the Arctic lies beyond Russia's economic jurisdiction, which is defined by the Law of the Sea Treaty as all waters within 200 miles of a country's coastline.

But if Russia can geologically prove that its continental shelf extends beyond the 200-mile limit, it can claim economic rights over that extension.

An international commission that reviews such applications rejected Russia's initial claim, but Opekunov and a team of 70 scientists at the Russian institute are crafting a second bid. Thirty of those scientists are sailing on an icebreaker near the Arctic's Lomonosov Ridge, conducting seismic tests to help determine the geology of the ocean floor, Opekunov said.

Of the five countries that surround the Arctic -- Russia, Norway, Denmark (via Greenland), Canada and the U.S. -- only America has yet to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. Canada and Denmark are working together on a counterclaim arguing that the Arctic's Lomonosov Ridge belongs not to the Siberian continental shelf but to the Canadian-Greenland shelf.

John Norton Moore, who served as a U.S. ambassador to law of the sea negotiations during the Nixon and Ford administrations, says the U.S. risks being left on the sidelines if it doesn't ratify the treaty. Ratification is needed if the U.S. wants the right to claim its own extension of the continental shelf emanating from the Alaskan coastline, and to have a say on the commission that reviews economic jurisdiction claims such as Russia's.

"Russia is the first nation in the world to submit a claim relative to those substantial Arctic resources, and the U.S. is harmed by not having a member on that commission," Moore said.

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