The Arctic Gold Rush: A Poisoned Chalice?

Author : Author Prakash

On the morning of 12th August 2000, the flagship of Russia’s Northern Fleet, battle-cruiser Peter the Great was conducting exercises in the southern Arctic Ocean, when sonar operators heard a loud underwater explosion. Contact was lost with the submarine Kursk, operating in the vicinity. A few days later, the badly damaged wreck of this 14,000 ton Oscar Class nuclear attack submarine was found lying at the bottom of the Barents Sea with bodies of her 118 crew sealed inside. While the seafaring world and the intelligence communities remained rife with speculation about the causes of this tragic accident, one, somewhat far-fetched but plausible hypothesis, said that the sinking of the Kursk may have resulted from a collision and/or attack by the US Navy submarine Memphis which was lurking on a spying mission in those waters.

In mid-2007, Russia deployed a large number of strategic Tupolev-95 bombers in a simulated missile launch exercise from bases in the Arctic. These exercises were closely monitored by NATO fighters in the air. These incidents are relevant, in illustrating the continuing importance, and the high stakes involved in the Arctic zone as a strategic arena for maritime power-play, long after the end of the Cold War.

The Arctic happens to be the smallest and shallowest of the world’s water bodies recognized as an ocean by the International Hydrographic Organization. Almost completely surrounded by Eurasia and North America, the Arctic Ocean has two main outlets; the larger one being into the Atlantic through what was a significant Cold War landmark, the “Greenland-Iceland-UK gap”, and the second through the narrow Bering Strait which separates Alaska from Siberia. The average depth of the ocean is about 1050 metres, with the deepest sounding around 5500 metres.

The Arctic Ocean has low salinity levels, and as a consequence, a majority of its surface is covered with a layer of about 10 feet thick sea-ice, whose spread fluctuates between winter and summer. About 50% of the ocean floor consists of continental shelf, with its embedded mineral wealth, including polymetallic nodules and hydrocarbons.

The Russian Endeavour

The 1st of August 2007, saw the Russian research ship, Akademik Fedorov following the narrow path painstakingly cut for it in the polar ice, by a nuclear ice-breaker. Her destination was the North Pole, and she carried two of the world’s most advanced submersible craft named Mir I and Mir II, as well as President Putin’s personal envoy, famed arctic explorer, Artur Chillingarov. The actual purpose of the mission remained shrouded in secrecy, till they arrived at the North Pole. The next day, the two mini-submarines made a historic dive to more than 13,000 feet (or 2 ½ miles) below the ice and in a somewhat melodramatic gesture, planted a metal capsule carrying a titanium Russian flag on the sea bed.

As a scientific, technological and logistic endeavour, this was no doubt a laudable achievement, which should have evoked professional admiration world-wide. But the reactions were mixed, because as it turned out, the primary objective of this undersea venture had been to bolster Russia’s claim to huge gas and oil deposits believed to lie beneath the Arctic Ocean. Moreover, the gesture was reminiscent of 16th century conquistadors, rather than of 21st century reality.

The elaborately planned and flawlessly executed mission was meant to demonstrate to the West, Russia’s determination to buttress her international standing by expanding her energy empire. More specifically, the undertaking was meant to reiterate a claim to over 460,000 sq miles of the Arctic seabed, estimated to contain over 10 billion tons of oil and gas. This is to be achieved by somehow proving that the 1240 mile long underwater Lomonosov Ridge is a geological extension of Russia’s continental shelf, and could be theirs to exploit under the United Nations Convention for Law of the Seas.

The issue is however, far more complex than it has been made to appear so far. To start with, there are four nations, apart from Russia, with legitimate stakes in the Arctic: USA, Canada, Norway and Denmark which owns Greenland and this by itself has the makings of a first class international row. So far, the Polar waters had remained off limits to all but scientific expeditions and nuclear submarines. But now, Russia’s audacious move may well bring down the barriers and trigger off, a “gold rush” in nature’s last frontier. Apart from this, the world is also awakening to issues of serious concern relating to the legal aspects of seabed exploitation, damage to the ecology of the Arctic, and the strategic implications of any nation staking a claim to the North Pole.

We will examine each of these issues separately; starting with the legal underpinning of seabed exploitation, for which an explanation in some detail is necessary. The UNCLOS

In 17th century Holland, was born the concept of mare liberum or “freedom of the seas”. This evolved into a convention wherein a nation’s rights existed only within a specified belt of sea, usually up to “canon shot” range, not exceeding 3 nm. All waters beyond that were “international waters”; free to all, but belonging to none. A need was felt in the early part of the last century to extend national claims in order to include mineral resources, to protect fishing resources and to have the means to enforce pollution control.

The League of Nations having tried but failed to provide any solutions, countries began to get impatient, and in 1945, President Truman unilaterally declared his nation’s control over all resources on its continental shelf. Within a few years, four South American states followed suit by extending their sovereign rights to 200 nm. By the mid-1960s, it had become a free for all affair with only 25 nations sticking to the traditional 3 nm limit and the rest declaring territorial limits, more or less, as they wished. The first convention for codifying laws of the seas was convened by the UN in 1956. The process made slow but steady progress thereafter, and by 1982, the third such convention known as UNCLOS III had obtained agreement on a set of laws. The Laws came into force in 1994, and to date, 154 countries, including Russia and India have joined the Convention. A notable exception has been the USA, and we will come to that shortly.

Under Article 76 of the convention, a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends to 200 nm from the baseline, and within it, the state has sole rights over natural resources. The Continental Shelf is the submerged prolongation of land territory beyond its territorial waters to the outer edge of the continental margin, or 200 nm, whichever is greater. Conditions have been specified where a state’s continental shelf may exceed 200 nm, but it may never exceed 350 nm or 100 nm beyond the 2500 metres isobath. States have the right to harvest mineral and non-living material in the sub-soil of their continental shelf to the exclusion of other states.

An International Seabed Authority was also established by the Convention to organize and control all mineral related activities in the international seabed area outside national jurisdiction. This Authority operates by contracting with private and public corporations and entities, and allowing them to explore and exploit specified areas on the seabed for minerals. The Government of India is one of the eight contractors world-wide that have been authorised to explore for polymetallic nodules in the south Indian Ocean, although no work has yet started for want of advanced technology.

US opposition to UNCLOS arose from President Reagan’s conviction that its provisions relating to seabed exploitation favoured the economic systems of the Socialist countries, and had not been made sufficiently free-market friendly, thereby preventing the US from exploiting its technological lead over other nations to the fullest. It was also opposed to the establishment of the International Seabed Authority which it felt would espouse the cause of less developed nations under the Utopian concept of the seas being the “common heritage of mankind”. For these reasons, the US Senate did not ratify UNCLOS, and America has been continuously sniping at it. Russia’s Claim in the Arctic

Although not fashionable to quote him any longer, let me hark back to what Fleet Admiral Gorshkov says in his famous work, “Sea Power of the State” written in 1976: “The chemical and mineral resources of the World Ocean are practically inexhaustible…the depths of the seabed comprise enormous energy resources…and although mankind can make full use of all this wealth only in the future, even now the importance of harnessing it is growing rapidly.” He then goes on to describe Russia’s early interest in the Arctic, and says: “With the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution, the young socialist state embarked on a systematic study of the Arctic basin.” Gorshkov’s prophetic words assume significance when seen in the light of Russia’s long-standing proprietary interest in the Arctic. Actual intervention and exploitation, obviously, had to await the availability of suitable technology.

The other stark fact is that the world is rapidly running out of hydrocarbons, and there have been no really significant finds in the past 30 years. The Arctic Ocean floor is believed to hold vast reservoirs of oil and natural gas, which is expected to become available as climate change melts the ice cap. So the frozen Arctic wastes can now be considered to contain the seeds of the next Cold War. At the root of this outbreak of polar posturing is not just national chauvinism, but access to what geologists believe are a quarter of the globe’s unexploited oil and gas reserves. In short, a panacea for the crippling energy crisis (termed “peak oil”) which has been looming before the world, but whose actual date keeps getting pushed back.

Today, each of the five nations encircling the Arctic Ocean have staked out their 200 nm EEZ to which they are entitled under UNCLOS III, and this forms a ring right around the north pole. It is the area of 300,000–400,000 sq km contained inside this ring that is now becoming a bone of serious contention amongst these nations. At this moment nobody’s continental shelf is deemed to extend up to the North Pole, so there is an international area around the pole, administered by the International Seabed Authority.

To validate jurisdiction beyond the 200 nm EEZ, a nation must submit scientific evidence which proves that the claimed area is a natural prolongation of its continental shelf. The zone can be extended up to a maximum of another 150 nm where a country must build up a scientific case based on criteria laid down in UNCLOS and prove that the structure of the continental slope is similar to the geological structure of its mainland. In this extended zone, the claimant has rights to minerals on and below the seabed. The claim, must however be submitted within 10 years of the state ratifying the treaty. In 2001 Moscow had made an official submission before the UN Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf to extend the outer limits of its continental shelf beyond 200 nm zone. One of the arguments put forth in support of the claim which incorporated a large portion of the Arctic, including the North Pole, was that the underwater features called the Lomonosov and Mendelyev Ridges were an extension of the Eurasian continent. In 2002, the UN body held the claim in suspense and asked for further confirmatory evidence. Russia has plans for undertaking extensive research, and the flag-planting mission was possibly the more visible component of this undertaking.

Russia’s August 2007 expedition took the other circum-polar states, namely USA, Canada, Norway and Denmark by surprise, and triggered off a chain reaction of panicky counter-claims. In the months that followed, these nations scrambled to enhance their Polar presence through expeditions, military manoeuvers and by investing in patrol ships and ice-breakers.

As far as the USA is concerned, there is considerable irony in the fact that in order to contest Russia’s claims or seek any redressal, she will have to approach the very UN bodies she has tried so hard to undermine. A change of heart has been claimed as “imminent”, for many years, and in 2007 after President Bush had urged the Senate to expedite the process for ratification of UNCLOS III the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had overwhelmingly approved it. However President Obama is said to be still battling opposition from right-wing opponents of the Treaty. Let us take a look at the impact of the impending oil rush on the Arctic environment. Environmental Concerns

With estimated reserves of 80-100 billion barrels, Russia is today, a distant second to the world’s largest producer of oil; Saudi Arabia which has known reserves of 264 billion barrels. The prospect of Arctic oil has electrified the giant oil companies and they are already scurrying to seek contracts for exploiting this potential bonanza beneath the polar ice. What lends a gloomy perspective to this development is that the exploitation of Arctic oil and gas is being made possible only because of environmental degradation. For millennia, the hydrocarbon deposits remained locked away under metres of ice, and are now becoming commercially accessible only because global warming is slowly but steadily melting it away.

There is grim tragedy underlying mankind’s insatiable thirst for hydrocarbon energy which no one appears to be mindful of. The consumption of fossil fuels releases large amounts of CO2 which are instrumental in raising the global temperature. This in turn melts Arctic ice, making available more fossil fuel for energy. Extraction and consumption of these new hydrocarbons will generate more CO2 and lead to further global warming, thus creating a self-perpetuating and destructive cycle of unbridled consumption and irreparable damage to the ecology.

In a related context, grave hazards are emerging from the gradual thawing of Siberian permafrost due to global warming. Organic matter has lain preserved for thousands of years under permafrost. The melting of this protective cover will now lead to decomposition of the organic matter and release of CO2 and methane gases into the atmosphere. Both these gases (methane much more than CO2) contribute significantly to the “greenhouse” effect which adds to global warming. From all this it would appear that in the hydrocarbons of the Arctic, humanity is not about to receive a blessing, but may be on the verge of sipping from a poisoned chalice. The Strategic Impact

For centuries, explorers had remained fixated on, and desperately sought two routes connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic through the Arctic. One called the “North-West Passage” ran through the Canadian Arctic archipelago along the northern coast of North America to connect the two oceans. The other was the “Northern Sea Route” which, starting from the north Atlantic ran along the Siberian coast to the Russian Far East and the Pacific through the Bering Strait. It was a part of the Northern Sea Route which the famous Russian Convoys of World War II made extensive use of, running the German gauntlet, while carrying desperately needed lend-lease equipment from UK to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel.

So far, both routes have been available only during summer, and often require the use of ice-breakers. However, the Arctic ice pack is rapidly melting away, and in the next few years, it is expected that ships will be able to sail these waterways freely. The use of these strategic routes would obviate transit through the Suez and Panama canals, and cut down distances between Europe and west coast of America, NE Asia and the Far East by as much as 5000-6000 km, or 15-20 days sailing, and transform the global shipping patterns.

In the late 1950s, with the deployment of missile armed nuclear submarines (or SSBNs), the waters of the Arctic assumed a new strategic significance. A glance at the globe will show that a missile launched from the Arctic would have the shortest time of flight, both to the continental USA as well as the Russian heartland. Therefore, the Soviet Red Banner Northern Sea Fleet had converted the waters off the Kola Peninsula into a classical naval “bastion”. Heavily defended, it was one of the impregnable citadels from where the Red Navy intended to rain ICBMs on NATO targets. Equally, it was a prime objective of NATO air and maritime forces to penetrate and pulverize this Soviet stronghold, through a nuclear exchange if required.

Fortunately, during the Cold War, a strategic balance prevailed in the Polar waters, with nuclear submarines of both sides undertaking operational deployments beneath the ice cap, honing underwater navigational skills, and often simulating missile launches at each other.

With her economic prospects ascendant, Russia has also commenced flexing her military muscle again, and dormant tensions with the West may start building up soon. Once the status quoin this region is disturbed, intense jockeying for a position of advantage is likely to recommence, with the attendant risk of skirmishes and incidents. Conclusion

The startled reaction, world-wide, to Russia’s Arctic foray served to dramatically re-focus international attention on the potential of this region as a future cornucopia of hydrocarbon resources for the global energy markets. This energy bonanza is contingent on the melting of Arctic ice, which by itself is a link in the chain of events which seem to be inexorably dragging an oblivious and helpless humanity towards certain ecological catastrophe.

There is much food for thought here for India. Her economic resurgence is linked to energy availability, and she is on track to become the second largest energy consumer in the world, but resources are dwindling. Are we investing enough in alternate sources of energy? If our nuclear power plans do not remain on track, do we have an energy fall-back plan? When will we have the technology required to exploit our EEZ and other allotted ocean seabed areas? And finally, Russia must be rapidly developing advanced technology for Polar exploration; should India drink from the poisoned chalice and consider teaming up with her in the Arctic? These and many other questions need to be urgently addressed by India.

At this juncture there is a need to make mention of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, signed in Paris during the post WW I Versailles negotiations. This treaty accorded recognition to Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard (earlier known as Spitsbergen); a resource-rich but ungoverned territory which lay within the Arctic Circle. Interestingly; included in the 14 original High Contracting Parties to the treaty was the “overseas Dominion of India”.

This treaty may be have remained a somewhat quaint and obscure, historic footnote, but for the provision which says: “All citizens and all companies of every nation under the treaty are allowed to become residents and to have access to Svalbard including the right to fish, hunt or undertake any kind of maritime, industrial, mining or trade activity.”

Could the Svalbard Treaty give India any advantage in the race for the Arctic?

(Based on a talk delivered at the IIC in September 2007)
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