Saturday, November 22, 2008

European Union wants in on the Arctic

The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, announced on Thursday that the EU wants to get involved in the Arctic.

With the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean retreating, nations are getting more and more interested in a body of water that until now was largely ignored due to its permanently frozen state. But as the globe warms and the ice retreats, new sea routes are opening up - including the fabled "Northwest Passage" north of Canada and Alaska that could shave weeks off the time it takes for a cargo ship to sail from Asia to Europe; so is access to the sea floor where a quarter of all the world's remaining reserves of oil and natural gas are thought to lie.

Canada has taken note, Prime Minister Harper has pledged to open a new deep water Arctic port in Canada's far north and increase the Canadian Navy's ability to operate in the Arctic since Canada expects the waters off their northern coast to become a major shipping route for at least part of the year. The Russians are planning to build up their Northern Fleet as well and earlier in the year launched an oil platform specially designed to work in the ice and bitter cold of the Arctic. Now the EU is saying that the Union should take steps to make sure they have access to the resources of the North.

The EU is also backing a claim by Denmark that could give them control over a vast stretch of the Arctic. Under international law every nation that has a coast on one of the world's oceans can claim a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone where only they can fish, or drill for oil, or conduct any other economic activity. This zone can be extended if a nation can prove that an underwater feature is an extension of their territory. Enter the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that runs along the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, right under the North Pole. Denmark claims that the Ridge is an extension of Greenland (which Denmark controls) therefore they should have the rights to it. The Russians are making the same claim to the ridge, saying it starts in Russian territory, giving them rights to the Ridge.

It's typical of one of the kinds of claims that countries will likely soon be making over the Arctic Ocean, and the resources that lie beneath it.
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