WASHINGTON - With oil above $100 a barrel and Arctic ice melting faster than ever, some of the world's most powerful countries -- including the United States and Russia -- are looking north to a possible energy bonanza.
This prospective scramble for buried Arctic mineral wealth made more accessible by freshly melted seas could bring on a completely different kind of cold war, a scholar and former Coast Guard officer says.
While a U.S. government official questioned the risk of polar conflict, Washington still would like to join a 25-year-old international treaty meant to figure out who owns the rights to the oceans, including the Arctic Ocean. So far, the Senate has not approved it.
Unlike the first Cold War, dominated by tensions between the two late-20th century superpowers, this century's model could pit countries that border the Arctic Ocean against each other to claim mineral rights. The Arctic powers include the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway.
The irony is that the burning of fossil fuels is at least in part responsible for the Arctic melt -- due to climate change -- and the Arctic melt could pave the way for a 21st century rush to exploit even more fossil fuels.
The stakes are enormous, according to Scott Borgerson of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant commander.
The Arctic could hold as much as one-quarter of the world's remaining undiscovered oil and gas deposits, Borgerson wrote in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.
Russia has claimed 460,000 square miles (1.191 million sq km) of Arctic waters, with an eye-catching effort that included planting its flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole last summer. Days later, Moscow sent strategic bomber flights over the Arctic for the first time since the Cold War.
"I think you can say planting a flag on the sea bottom and renewing strategic bomber flights is provocative," Borgerson said in a telephone interview.
SCRAMBLING AND SLEEPWALKING
By contrast, he said of the U.S. position, "I don't think we're scrambling. We're sleepwalking ... I think the Russians are scrambling and I think the Norwegians and Canadians and Danes are keenly aware."
Borgerson said that now would be an appropriate time for the United States to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which codifies which countries have rights to what parts of the world's oceans.
The Bush administration agrees. So do many environmental groups, the U.S. military and energy companies looking to explore the Arctic, now that enough ice is seasonally gone to open up sea lanes as soon as the next decade.
"There's no ice cold war," said one U.S. government official familiar with the Arctic Ocean rights issue. However, the official noted that joining the Law of the Sea pact would give greater legal certainty to U.S. claims in the area.
That is becoming more crucial, as measurements of the U.S. continental shelf get more precise.
Coastal nations like those that border the Arctic have sovereign rights over natural resources of their continental shelves, generally recognized to reach 200 nautical miles out from their coasts.
But in February, researchers from the University of New Hampshire and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released data suggesting that the continental shelf north of Alaska extends more than 100 nautical miles farther than previously presumed.
A commission set up by the Law of the Sea lets countries expand their sea floor resource rights if they meet certain conditions and back them up with scientific data.
The treaty also governs navigation rights, suddenly more important as scientists last year reported the opening of the normally ice-choked waters of the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
"Of course we need to be at the table as ocean law develops," the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's not like ocean law is going to stop developing if we're not in there. It's just going to develop without us."
Editing by Philip Barbara
© 2008 Reuters