The Arctic: strategies for the future

The world is facing acute energy shortages. Amid the rising demand for oil and gas and the dwindling amounts of accessible fuel resources, competition for resources is getting tougher. As a result, humanity is being forced to look to the Arctic for deposits that were considered unprofitable in the past.

The world is facing acute energy shortages. Amid the rising demand for oil and gas and the dwindling amounts of accessible fuel resources, competition for resources is getting tougher. As a result, humanity is being forced to look to the Arctic for deposits that were considered unprofitable in the past. 

Global warming, even though generally considered to be a negative process, has proved beneficial with regard to making hitherto inaccessible resources available for the first time in history. The melting of the Arctic ice has paved the way for access to huge oil and gas reserves, attracting both Arctic countries and other global powers.  Now, a dispute has started as to who the Arctic Region belongs to and what rules will regulate the management of its natural resources.

The Arctic is a region located around the North Pole and boasting an area of some 27 million square kilometers. Bordering on the Arctic are the Russian Federation, part of the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway.

The Arctic sector of each of the countries is historically an area that has the coastal line of a country as the baseline, with meridians from the North Pole to the eastern or western border of the state in question seen as lateral lines.

The sector division of the Arctic was prompted by the Arctic countries’ perfectly justified effort to withdraw from international jurisdiction the areas of paramount importance to these countries due to their geography and climate. But the effort was not approved as a provision of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, adopted on December 10th 1982. The Convention took effect on November 16th 1994, after it was ratified by 60 countries. The Russian Federation did not ratify the Convention until 1997, when it became the 109th signatory state.

Under the Convention, the coastal states have complete sovereignty over the air space, the sea bed and all resources 12 nautical miles from their coastline as well as a 200-mile exclusive economic zone which stretches from the edge of their territorial sea border

In accordance with international regulations of the 1920s, the Arctic territories were divided into sectors, each belonging to an Arctic state. Each sector’s borderline passed along the meridian lines running from the North Pole to the eastern and westernmost tips of the country’s coastline which was fine until shortly after the discovery of new oil and gas deposits in the Arctic. Suddenly the sector principle was called into question.

All territories that go beyond these boundaries are declared to belong to all which means all countries have equal rights to their natural resources and can apply to the UN for the development of the respective areas of the shelf. National borders no longer pass along the sector lines but along the outer limit of territorial waters which is set at 12 miles for Russia, Canada and Denmark, and at 3 miles for the US.

As far as international law goes, the Arctic has become a no man’s land and it is unclear how to divide the territory. So who has a right to a share of “the Arctic pie”, only coastal nations or all of the countries of the world?

Japan, Germany and some other highly developed nations boasting seabed research technologies insist that what needs to be applied to the Arctic Ocean are the general principles of the 1982 Convention, including the right to the commercial development of subsoil resources. However they argue that a coastal nation’s continental shelf rights do not affect the legal status of the superjacent waters or the airspace above.

As long as maritime space over the continental shelf remains open sea, all nations have the right to use it for navigation, air flights, fishing and/or laying underwater cables or pipelines. But the continental shelf is a special-use area in terms of prospecting for and developing mineral resources. The coastal state has the right to build relevant facilities and set up security zones (up to 500 meters) around them. But the execution of rights by a coastal state should not infringe on other countries’ right of navigation or other rights.

Russia explored the Northern Sea Route running from the Kola Bay in the west to the Bering Sea in the east centuries ago and has been using it ever since. Access of marine vessels to the Northern Sea Route for navigation is determined by the Russian Regulations for Navigation on the Seaways of the Northern Sea Route.

The Regulations have been in effect since July 1st 1991. Foreign ships sail along the route by consent and under control of Russian navigation services. The ships that are allowed to use the route are due to meet specific technical and economic requirements. The Northern Sea Route is the Russian Federation’s national transport communication system throughout its length regardless of its distance from the coastline.