As the home to what is estimated to be as much as 30% of the remaining oil and gas reserves on the planet, the Arctic seabed is increasingly becoming a subject of interest around the world. The largely hidden portion of the ocean floor is historically the province of only five nations, but it’s getting a lot of visitors these days. And now, Russia is revisiting an old claim of theirs, taking their case to the United Nations and claiming that they should be the rightful owners of a gigantic swath of the region. (Yahoo News)

Russia has submitted its bid for vast territories in the Arctic to the United Nations, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

The ministry said in a statement that Russia is claiming 1.2 million square kilometers (over 463,000 square miles) of Artic sea shelf extending more than 350 nautical miles (about 650 kilometers) from the shore.

Russia, the U.S., Canada, Denmark and Norway have all been trying to assert jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic, which is believed to hold up to a quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas. Rivalry for Arctic resources has intensified as shrinking polar ice is opening new opportunities for exploration.

Russia was the first to submit its claim in 2002, but the U.N. sent it back for lack of evidence.

This entire argument falls under the general umbrella of “international law” so the question is on rather sketchy ground to begin with. The current understanding of who “owns” the Arctic basin is laid out by the UN International Seabed Authority, and it’s divided up between the United States, (via Alaska) Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark. (Because of their claim on Greenland) But it’s also understood that the range of continental shelf that each nation can lay claim to is limited to 200 nautical miles from the shore. Everything beyond those limits is considered to be “the high seas” under international law and part of the “heritage of all mankind.” That definition becomes even more tricky when you consider that the “shore” can include numerous, tiny, disputed islands. This map (available at Wikipedia) gives you an idea of how messy the entire situation can be.

Arctic

The Russian claim extends almost twice as far as it should based on the 200 mile limit and they’ve been up to a number of other hijinks in recent years which seem intended to increase their muscle in the polar regions. (This includes rebuilding defunct, Soviet era bases on their northern coast.)

The problem is that we’ve been digging around for oil up there for a while ourselves and others have challenged our rights to conduct exploration in regions which might be disputed the same way the Russian claim will be. Heritage published an analysis several years ago making the case that nobody else has the right to limit United States exploration up there.

The United States can mine the deep seabed without acceding to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). For more than 30 years, through domestic law and bilateral agreements, the U.S. has established a legal framework for deep seabed mining. In fact, U.S. accession would penalize U.S. companies by subjecting them to the whims of an unelected and unaccountable international bureaucracy. U.S. companies would be forced to pay excessive fees, costs, and royalties to the International Seabed Authority for redistribution to developing countries. U.S. interests are better served by not acceding to UNCLOS.

It’s a fairly substantial argument, but it spawns a rather complicated question. If we accept the premise that the UN has no right to stop us from drilling or laying claim to mineral rights under the ice, why can’t Russia make the same case? No matter what the UN decides in terms of Russia’s claim, this one is going to be tangled up in courts for years to come.