Tag Archives: Arctic waters

The Claim of Denmark on the Arctic

Arctic Ocean bathymetric features.  Image from wikipedia

In 2007 a Russian-led polar expedition, descending through the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean in a Mir submarine, planted a titanium Russian tricolour on the sea bed 4km (2.5 miles) beneath the North Pole… Over the next few years the Arctic Council (a talking shop for governments with territories inside the Arctic Circle, and others who attend as observers) became much more influential and one of the few remaining border disputes there (between Norway and Russia) was settled.

Now Denmark has staked a claim to the North Pole, too. On December 15th it said that, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), some 900,000 square kilometres of the Arctic Ocean north of Greenland belongs to it (Greenland is a self-governing part of Denmark). The timing was happenstance. Claims under UNCLOS have to be made within ten years of ratification—and the convention became law in Denmark on December 16th 2004. But its claim conflicts with those of Russia, which has filed its own case under UNCLOS, and (almost certainly) Canada, which plans to assert sovereignty over part of the polar continental shelf (see map).

The prize for these countries is the mineral wealth of the Arctic, which global warming may make more accessible. Temperatures in the region are rising at twice the rate of the rest of the Earth. According to the United States Geological Survey, the area has an eighth of the world’s untapped oil and perhaps a quarter of its gas….

The melting of the summer sea ice has also opened up trade routes between Asia and Europe via the top of the world; 71 cargo ships plied the north-east passage last summer, up from 46 in 2012. And trade requires rules. Moreover, under UNCLOS, most of the known energy and mineral reserves are within countries’ 200-nautical mile economic zones anyway. So everyone has an interest in minimising conflicts and amicably settling those that crop up.

But… in the summer of 2014 it carried out extensive combat exercises in the Arctic for the first time since the end of the cold war. It is re-equipping old Soviet bases there and in July tested the first of its new-generation rockets, called the Angara, from a cosmodrome in the high north. Sweden spent part of the summer searching for a Russian submarine that it suspected of slipping into its territorial waters.

Denmark’s claim will test whether Russia is willing to stick to the rules in the Arctic. It is based on a provision of the law of the sea which says countries may control an area of seabed if they can show it is an extension of their continental shelf. (Denmark argues that the Lomonosov ridge, which bisects the Arctic, starts in Greenland.) All Arctic countries, Russia included, have promised to respect this law.

Excerpts, The Arctic: Frozen conflict, Economist, Dec. 20, 2014, at 89

Dividing the Arctic

Hans Island (dispute between Denmark and Canada).  Image from wikipedia

Singapore has applied for permanent observer status at the Arctic Council. This is made up of the eight states that have territory within the Arctic circle: the United States, Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland and the Faroes), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. But Singapore sits at the equator, as far from either pole as it is possible to be. How can it be interested?

The answer is that in 2012, as the summer ice melted, 46 ships sailed through Arctic waters, according to Arctis, a research group, mostly from Far Eastern ports to Europe. They carried 1.2m tonnes of cargo, a third more than in 2011. This “northern route” could erode Singapore’s position as a global shipping hub. And the melting of the Greenland glaciers could threaten its existence: Singapore’s highest point, Bukit Timah, is only 164m (538ft) above sea level.

Other non-Arctic countries queuing for various kinds of seat at the table are China, India, Italy, Japan and South Korea, as well as the European Union, Greenpeace and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers. Their applications—supposed to be ruled on in May—are the clearest signs of the growing geopolitical interest in the melting north. The existing members are wondering whether the outsiders will promote stability or disruption.

Even the current arrangements have attracted excited speculation. According to the United States Geological Survey, the Arctic has 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its gas (the gas estimate is pre-shale, so is probably too high)…Boundary disputes rumble between America and Canada over the Beaufort Sea; between Russia and America in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, and between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island and in the Lincoln Sea. Russia is modernising its northern fleet; America is thinking about putting armed coastguard vessels into its Arctic waters. The South China Sea shows how minor territorial disputes can flare dangerously, especially when natural resources are at stake….

All countries play by the rules. Legal norms are well established. The United Nations Law of the Sea, for example, has put almost all unprospected oil, gas and minerals under national jurisdictions, narrowing the scope for dispute (America has not ratified it, but says it will abide by it). Despite some swagger and stunts in past years, Russia is playing a constructive role, especially on shipping: it wants the “northern route” to be a success. In 2010 it settled a territorial dispute with Norway.

The Arctic Council epitomises this spirit of increasing co-operation. It began in 1996, mainly as a research project and talking-shop, but is fast becoming a decision-making body. In 2011 its members signed their first treaty, on joint search-and-rescue missions, which are too expensive for countries to undertake on their own. A second treaty—on cleaning up oil spills—will be signed shortly. On January 21st the members set up the first permanent secretariat, at Tromso in northern Norway.

One fear—especially in Canada—is that economic development could bring an oil spill that could devastate the pristine Arctic environment for decades. But a bigger question is what effect the newcomers might have on these cosy arrangements. Could China one day decide the northern sea route had become so important that it was within its sphere of strategic interest—meaning Chinese submarines would appear in Arctic waters? Such fears are far-fetched. The driving force of the outsiders’ interest is economic. China and others are backing the established rules and institutions such as the Arctic Council, not undermining them.  Yet worries persist. The insiders are squabbling about the right role for the outsiders. Canada is relaxed about China’s application to join the council, but fears the EU will try to stop its native peoples hunting seals (though the EU has a limited exemption for the Inuit). Russia is happy for the EU to join but is suspicious of letting in the Chinese.

China is also affecting the domestic policies of some Arctic countries, rather as it has in Africa. For instance, Greenland governs its own internal affairs, but Denmark runs its foreign policy. It contains about a tenth of the world’s deposits of rare-earth minerals. China, with a third or more of the rest, wants to build a big mine there to keep control over the global business. Uranium will be a by-product, but responsibility for disposing of that is considered a matter of foreign policy, residing in Copenhagen. Denmark has no experience of uranium recycling, and little desire to start.

Greenland’s government is also backing a $2.5 billion iron mine (by London Mining, the Isua Project) which, if it went ahead, would be worth more than the island’s annual GDP and could attract as many as 5,000 Chinese workers (how? London Mining is to work with). In December 2012 the local government exempted such large projects from Denmark’s strict labour laws. But Chinese workers in Greenland would still need visas, which must be issued in Copenhagen. Denmark could therefore face the unwelcome choice between scuppering a pet project of huge, poor Greenland’s or undermining its own labour laws.  For the foreseeable future China and others are unlikely to challenge the rules that underwrite Arctic stability. But the outsiders’ impact may be more disruptive than their self-restraint would suggest.

Outsiders in the Arctic: The roar of ice cracking, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 49

See also Arctic Council

Oil Drilling in the Arctic: Environmental Commandoes weapon freedom of information

Armed Danish commandoes are thought to have been landed on a giant oil rig by helicopter to prevent environmentalists interfering with a British oil company’s controversial exploration of deep Arctic waters. In a stand-off in the Davis Strait, west of Greenland, the Danish navy has been shadowing the Greenpeace ship Esperanza as it tracked the 53,000 tonne Leiv Eiriksson in iceberg-strewn sea to the site where it plans to search for oil at depths of up to 5,000ft.  The confrontation between Denmark and Greenpeace, which argues that it is dangerous to drill for oil in pristine Arctic waters, follows the decision by Scottish oil company Cairn Energy to explore for oil and gas in Baffin Sea this summer.

Fears that an Arctic spill would be difficult if not impossible to clean up were confirmed in an email exchange between the British Foreign Office and the energy secretary, Chris Huhne, that was obtained by Greenpeace under freedom of information legislation. Officials briefed Huhne, saying: “It is difficult to get assistance in case of pollution problems in such areas, and near impossible to make good damage caused.”…Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser at Greenpeace UK said: “These documents make it clear that companies like Cairn are playing Russian roulette with one of the most important environments in the world. When even the UK government recognises the huge risks associated with the oil drilling in the Arctic then it must be time to halt the rush for oil in one of the most delicate ecosystems in the in the world.”

Cairn says it has prepared comprehensive oil spill plans, and has put up a bond of $2bn. Last month it said in a statement: “Wherever it is active, Cairn seeks to operate in a safe and prudent manner. The Greenlandic Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum has established some of the most stringent operating regulations anywhere globally, which mirror those applied in the Norwegian North Sea. Cairn respects the rights of individuals and organisations to express their views in a safe manner.”

Seven major oil companies have licenses to explore off Greenland but Cairn will be the only one to begin operations in the short July-October “summer window” when the ice has retreated. Cairn holds 11 licences covering over 80,000 square kilometres and plans to drill four exploratory wells to depths of around 5,000ft, the deepest ever attempted in the Arctic.

Fears that Greenpeace plan to prevent work have been heightened since the group occupied one of Cairn’s drilling ships working in shallower Arctic waters last years, and 11 climbers also boarded the Leiv Eiriksson, when it left Turkey for Greenland last month. Greenpeace also tried to stop the rig as it passed Greece and Italy last month but was prevented by storms.

Excerpt, John Vidal, Danish commandoes wade into Greenpeace Arctic oil protest,Guardian, May 24, 2011