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Staking a Claim to the Arctic’s Oil

July 29, 2008

MOSCOW — When a Russian submersible plunged to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean last year and placed a titanium Russian flag on the seabed, the gesture was meant to symbolically stake the Kremlin’s claim to territory under the North Pole and whatever energy riches lay untapped there.

From the looks of a new report compiled by American geologists, the Kremlin may want to move that flag.

The U.S. Geological Survey last week released its assessment of undiscovered oil and natural gas in the Arctic. The agency’s researchers found that the Arctic Ocean contains an energy bonanza — 90 billion barrels of oil and nearly a third of the world’s untapped natural gas.

However, according to the report, most of the Arctic’s untapped oil and natural gas lies in waters close to Alaska, Canada and Russia’s Siberian coast — offshore areas already covered by those countries’ territorial jurisdictions. The strata underneath the North Pole claimed by the Russians last year appears to hold just 1.2 percent of the Arctic’s crude.

“Geology in that deep Arctic basin, under the ice, under the North Pole, is not very interesting from the petroleum point of view,” said Donald Gautier, who led the USGS research team.

The places in the Arctic Ocean likely to have the largest share of energy resources “are up on the continental shelves in areas that are already under territorial claim.”

While the expedition to the Arctic seabed had been widely derided as a publicity stunt, Russians defended it as a landmark scientific achievement and an expression of their renewed prominence on the world stage. Since then, Russia has stepped up efforts to defend its claim to the portion of the Arctic under the North Pole and the energy resources locked away there.

After the mission, a member of the submersible’s crew, Russian lawmaker Artur Chilingarov, said, “If a hundred or a thousand years from now someone goes down to where we were, they will see the Russian flag.”

Based on the USGS assessment, there won’t be much of a reason to make the trip.




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