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Denmark sails to challenge Russian claims to the North Pole's oil and gas riches

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04 August 2012


Rush for the Arctic: Danish scientists aim to gather evidence, proving that a crucial Arctic's undersea ridge extends from Greenland. Picture: Russian Geographical Society

The mission aboard 'Oden' icebreaker could even result in the planting of a Danish flag at the North Pole in the coming weeks. 

The scientists and researchers plan to gather evidence that a crucial undersea ridge extends directly from the land mass of Greenland, which is part of the Kingdom of Denmark. 

'They are hoping the seismic data they collect between now and mid-September will support the claim of Denmark and Greenland to 150,000 square kilometres of extra territory extending north from Greenland into the oil and gas-rich Arctic sea floor,' says New Scientist.

'Their claim rests on whether an underwater formation extending north of Greenland called the Lomonosov ridge qualifies as an extension of Greenland's land mass. If it does, Greenland can bid to extend its undersea territory.

'Any such move would meet resistance from Russia: in 2007 it claimed that the opposite end of the Lomonosov ridge is an extension of Siberia.'

'We need the data that we plan to acquire on this cruise,' said Christian Marcussen, the expedition's chief scientist from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. 

He is, though, already optimistic there will be evidence to submit a claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. 'We are quite confident that we will be able to make a submission,' he said. 

The expedition sailed from Svalbard off northern Norway on 31 July. Denmark has until November 2014 to submit a claim to rival Russia's.

Oden icebreaker, Norway

'Oden' icebreaker with the Danish scientific mission on board on its way to Arctic  

Marcussen said he did not rule out stopping at the North Pole to plant a Danish flag on the ice, as his team did in 2009, if it happened to be on the icebreaker's route, reported Reuters.

He added this was not the goal of the 45-day expedition and that any flag would be removed after such a ceremony.

In 2001 Russia became the first country to assert its claim under UNCLOS, arguing that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of Siberia's continental shelf. 

In 2007 scientist Artur Chilingarov led an expedition which planted a titanium Russian flag  in the ocean floor under the North Pole.

Moscow has also undertaken detailed scientific work in support of its claim while Canada is also asserting its position.   In 2007, Canadian premier Stephen Harper said: 'Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic; either we use it or we lose it.'

'I reject the confrontation scenarios that have been presented in the media and academic circles,' said Klaus Holm, Denmark's Arctic ambassador, last week. 

'If there is any area where every party has an interest in cooperating, it is the Arctic. The challenge is so huge and the areas are so vast.'

His words echoed sentiments from Russia's ambassador for Arctic affairs, Anton Vasiliev, who called for collaboration on safety procedures in oil and gas production in the region, adding: 'The Arctic is a bit special for civility. You cannot survive alone in the Arctic: this is perhaps true for countries as well as individuals.'

The Danish expedition is probing at least five territorial claims based on Greenland and the Faroe Islands. 

Attention will focus most on the assertion that 150,000 square kilometres (58,000 sq miles) extending north from Greenland - and including the North Pole - is Danish.

This rests on the  Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater formation spanning 1,800 kilometres (1,118 miles) across the pole, being judged  an extension of Greenland's land mass.

Russian scientists claim that the ridge is an extension of Siberia's land mass, this does not exclude that it could also being an extension of Greenland and Canada, insisted Marcussen.

Under the UN convention, a country can extend its 200-nautical-mile economic zone if it can prove that the continental shelf is a natural extension of its land mass. The US and Norway also have claims over Arctic mineral development. 

Last week President Vladimir Putin spoke of 'our growing presence in the Arctic' as Russia seeks to exploit is existing resources in the region.

He stressed: 'We will increase our efforts and work in many areas here, developing new deposits and building new infrastructure, above all ports, roads, bridges and so on. 

'Of course, we will also bolster our military presence here too.'

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev Thursday also ordered action to attract private oil and gas companies to develop the country's vast, but mostly untapped, energy resources.  

He ordered the creation of a working group to draw up a blueprint for the opening of Russia's continental shelf in the period until 2030. It is headed by deputy premier Arkady Dvorkovich.

Russia plans  to quadruple gas production on its continental shelf to 230 billion cubic meters (bcm) and to quintuple shelf oil output to 66.2 million tonnes by 2030, he said.

Canada last year mounted its largest-ever naval exercise in Arctic waters. 

Analysts say there could be  90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under the Arctic.  But there are huge technological challenges in extracting it, even after the territorial cake has been divided. Not least is the ecological question and the threat to the eco-balance of an area many experts now see as suffering from chronic global warming. 

The Arctic has the potential to generate US$100-billion in oil, gas and mining investments in a few years, according to a Chatham House report.  

This is more than the combined known reserves of Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Mexico, or enough to keep the entire planet supplied for three years.

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