Countries lay claim to Arctic in battle for oil and gas reserves

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Nations laid out their claims to territory in the polar North yesterday and the vast untapped mineral wealth that lies under the Arctic Ocean.

Shrinking polar ice has opened up new opportunities, with five nations – Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the US – claiming jurisdiction over parts of the polar region which could contain as much of one quarter of the world's undiscovered reserves of oil and gas.

Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, will attend the Arctic Forum in Moscow today as the stakes in the battle for control of the Arctic become ever higher. Russia, Canada and Denmark have all said they will file claims to the UN over an undersea mountain range called the Lomonosov Ridge, an area which some Russian scientists say could hold 75 billion barrels of oil. They all say the ridge is an underwater extension of their continental shelves.

Russia first submitted a claim in 2001, which was rejected. But now the Russians say they have gathered more evidence to support their Arctic claim, including a set of samples taken from the seabed, collected by an expedition that journeyed to the Arctic this year.

Alexander Bedritsky, the Russian president's adviser on climate change, said Russia would file its claim to the UN within the next two or three years. He said he believed the Russians had a "strong chance" of their bid being approved. Canada and Denmark are also readying claims.

As the ice continues to melt, Russia is also interested in exploiting the Northern Sea Route, which could slash journey times and costs from Europe to Asia. Currently ships travelling on the route across the top of Russia have to be accompanied by nuclear-powered ice breakers. Mr Bedritsky told reporters yesterday: "We will protect our interests in the Arctic with all civilised instruments envisaged by international agreements."

Tensions over the Arctic peaked three years ago when a Russian expedition to the North Pole led by the celebrated explorer Artur Chilingarov travelled over two miles down to the seabed in titanium capsules and planted a Russian flag there, a clear sign of Russia's intent to make the Arctic its own. The mission drew an angry response from Canada.

The mood at the conference yesterday was conciliatory, with world leaders urging negotiations rather than conflict.

"The Cold War times, when the Arctic was a region of tension, have passed," said Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson in Moscow yesterday.

The conference follows a historic accord signed by Russia and Norway last week that solves a decades-old dispute over the Barents Sea. The two countries agreed to split the difference between their two claims, and divided the disputed area in half. If any natural resources are found straddling the newly delineated boundary, the two states will co-manage them.

An opinion piece by the foreign ministers of Russia and Norway was published yesterday in a Canadian newspaper, calling on Arctic countries to solve the problems through dialogue. "We firmly believe that the Arctic can be used to demonstrate just how much peace and collective interests can be served through the implementation of the international rule of law," wrote Jonas Gahr Store and Sergey Lavrov. "Moreover, we believe that the challenges in the Arctic should inspire momentum in international relations, based on co-operation rather than rivalry and confrontation."

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