Arctic States Meet to Discuss Fossil Fuel Exploration

OTTAWA (AFP), Mar. 29, 2010

Five Arctic states meet Monday in the Canadian city of Chelsea to bolster regional cooperation amid concerns of a military build-up and opposition to the tapping of its rich resources.

Representatives from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S. will participate in the Quebec talks.

The meeting comes as a global race for vast oil and gas reserves believed to be hidden beneath the seabed intensifies, raising fears of increased commercial activity spoiling the pristine environment.

"Over time, increased access to the region will result in new opportunities and challenges," Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said in a statement.

"It is important that we plan now for the future," he said. "Arctic Ocean coastal states are in a unique position to set the agenda for responsible management of the region."

Each of the five Arctic nations claim overlapping parts of the region estimated to hold 90 billion untapped barrels of oil.

They pledged in 2008 to try to avoid territorial conflicts and balance economic opportunities with conservation of this fragile ecosystem.

But a Canadian study has found a significant and worrying build-up of military assets in the far north.

Research by Robert Huebert of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies showed the five states have either built or announced 66 combat-capable Arctic vessels intended for or capable of operating in the Arctic, including patrol boats, icebreakers and submarines.

Canada also announced a winter warfare training camp and an Arctic military port, and has increased its northern surveillance capabilities.

Cannon said: "All of my colleagues are in a cooperative and collaborative mood."

Others point out that U.S. and Canadian geologists are jointly mapping the Arctic seabed, Russia and Canada are working together on search-and-rescue protocols, and Danish troops will soon join Canadians on Arctic maneuvers.

However, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's claim mid-month that fellow Arctic nations were sidelining Moscow in a race to tap the region's resources has created confusion, and some resentment.

Medvedev said there had been "attempts to limit Russia's access to the exploration and development of Arctic deposits." Medvedev didn't specify which country, and was met with denials.

The Indigenous Environmental Network, the Council of Canadians and the Alaska-based REDOIL Network meanwhile in an open letter called for a moratorium on all new fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic.

"Increased development of Arctic oil and gas would not only contribute to the climate crisis that is devastating Arctic communities, it would also add more direct pressure to fragile ecosystems that are already stressed by the combined impacts of climate change and existing development," said Daniel T'seleie on behalf of the signatories.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that any coastal state can claim undersea territory 200 nautical miles from their shoreline and exploit the natural resources within that zone.

Nations can also extend that limit to up to 350 nautical miles from their coast if they can provide scientific proof that the undersea continental plate is a natural extension of their territory.

Moscow believes it should also control the Northern Sea Route, a passage that stretches from Asia to Europe across northern Russia, and in 2007 planted a flag on the ocean floor beneath the North Pole in a symbolic staking of its claim over the region.

Canada meanwhile has claimed the Northwest Passage, but is at odds with the U.S. that considers it to be international waters.

Also, Norway and Russia contest a 176,000-square-kilometer area of the Barents Sea.

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