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Russia presents vision for Arctic wealth

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
  • Russia hosts forum of international experts on Arctic region
  • Arctic contains a vast wealth of untapped oil and natural gas
  • Countries trying to increase jurisdiction through United Nations
  • Melting of Arctic ice has opened up previously inaccessible areas

(CNN) -- Three years after Russian divers thrust a rust-proof flag into the seabed below the North Pole, the country is again staking its claim on the Arctic region.

An international forum held in Moscow Wednesday aimed to "present the world community with a picture of the region's future as it is seen by the Russian experts," according to Sergei Shoigu, the President of the Russian Geographical Society (RGS) who is also the country's Emergencies Minister.

The Arctic contains a vast wealth of untapped oil and natural gas, according to a report released in July 2010 by the U.S. Geological Survey.

It estimated that the amount of "undiscovered, technically recoverable" oil north of the Arctic Circle was more than double the amount that had been previously found in the Arctic. It added that the Arctic contained more than three times as much undiscovered gas as oil, most of which was in the Russian Arctic.

Russia has long sought to claim rights to the waters of the Arctic Ocean off Russia, including its much-publicized expedition to plant the Russian flag on the Arctic sea floor in August 2007.

Video: Moscow meeting over Arctic
What we would say is 'don't even think about digging this stuff up'
--Charlie Kronick, Greenpeace
  • Russia
  • Arctic Circle
  • Arctic Ocean

On Wednesday, it announced plans to start work soon on a new atlas of the Arctic, a task Sergei Shoigu described as requiring "extensive, serious work."

He said it would include descriptions on potentially dangerous areas in the Arctic which may be of interest to companies working in the region.

Along with having the largest land mass in the Arctic, Russians account for half of the Arctic's population and the most populous towns above the Arctic Circle lie in Russia, according to the Russian Geographical Society.

"Russia is distinct from other Arctic nations in that a large share of its population actually lives in the Arctic region," Russian Presidential Advisor for Climate Alexander Bedritsky told the Arctic Forum.

"Russia's Arctic sector, inhabited by 1.5 percent of the country's population, accounts for 11 percent of its GDP and 22 percent of its exports," Bedritsky said.

While Russia counts for the bulk of Arctic land, seven other states have land in Arctic territory: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), the United States (Alaska), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

No single country owns the geographic North Pole or the Arctic Ocean, which covers around one third of the total area. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the eight states have jurisdiction over waters extending 12 nautical miles from their shore, and their exclusive economic zones stretch up to 200 nautical miles into the Arctic Ocean.

Russia is among a number of countries seeking to extend their jurisdiction by gathering scientific data to back their case for consideration by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

Russia and Canada clashed as recently as last week over which country controls the Lomonosov Ridge, a mountain chain running underneath the Arctic.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russian explorers had confirmed that the ridge was a continuation of Russia's continental shelf, despite Canada's claims otherwise.

"The decision should be based on scientific facts. The Commission will solve who is right," Lavrov said, according to Russian news agency Itar-Tass News.

In August, Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said establishing sovereignty in the Arctic was the country's "top foreign-policy priority."

"That is why we are making new and targeted investments, be they patrol ships, a new polar-class icebreaker, reinforcements to our Canadian Rangers, better monitoring of our airspace and seas and the list goes on," he said.

The melting of ice in the Arctic through climate change has opened up a region that was once inaccessible.

In mid-September, the U.S. National Ice and Snow Data Center at the University of Colorado reported that this summer the Arctic sea ice reached the third lowest level ever recorded.

"We are still looking at summers with an ice-free Arctic Ocean in perhaps 20 to 30 years," said Mark Serreze, University of Colorado geography professor and director of the NISDC.

Environmental group Greenpeace says Russia's decision to assemble international experts at a Moscow forum was a further attempt to stake its claim on the region's resources.

"The more people talk about it the better it is but I think the reality is that the gunfight has already started," said Charlie Kronick, the group's senior climate advisor.

He said rather than "chasing the last drop of oil" governments would do better to spend their time and money making greater efforts to curb energy demand.

"What we would say is 'don't even think about digging this stuff up -- it is crazy at the moment and the first thing we need to do is to reduce demand,'" he said.

He added: "However big the notional oil and gas reserves are up in the Arctic, we have already got more oil and gas than we can afford to burn if we don't want to cook the climate."

The Arctic Forum finishes Thursday.