April 15, 2009

Norway Sets Territorial Boundaries Short Of North Pole

Norway agreed to limits on its northern seabed on Wednesday, becoming the first Arctic state to establish such territorial boundaries.

The move is part of a regional territorial shuffle driven in part by the potential of finding gas and oil.

Norway's newly defined continental shelf, which stops short of the North Pole, covers 90,740 sq miles, roughly three-quarters the size of mainland Norway, said Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere.  To the north, the shelf ends 341.8 miles from the Pole that is currently claimed by both Denmark and Russia.

"Norway is the first polar nation to complete this work," Stoere said during a news conference of talks with the U.N. Commission.

The conference is seeking to reach an agreement on limits to continental shelves of coastal states as part of a revised U.N. Law of the Sea treaty.

Such an agreement would give states the right to exploit natural resources such as gas, oil or the genes of marine organisms, on and underneath the seabed.

Last year, a U.S.-authored report said the Arctic contains 90 billion barrels of gas and oil, enough to meet current global demand for three years. 

According to Stoere, Norway accepted changes by Commission experts to a submission the nation had made in 2006, and would enact the new limits into law. 

Other states bordering the Arctic Ocean are Russia, the United States, Canada and Denmark (via Greenland).

Stoere said boundaries were also established between Norway and Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes.

"In the discussion about who owns the North Pole -- it's definitely not us," he said.

In 2007, Russia planted its flag on the seabed 13,980 ft beneath the North Pole in a figurative claim.  Denmark has also claimed rights to the Pole because of a subsea ridge that runs north from Greenland toward Russia.

According to Stoere, the Norwegian shelf still has some undefined areas because of long-standing disagreements with Russia to the east.  Also at issue is how to define the area around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, currently open to all signatories of a 1920 treaty.

According to the Law of the Sea, coastal nations own the seabed beyond existing 200 nautical miles as long as it is part of a continental shelf of shallower waters.

Some shelves extend hundreds of miles before reaching the ocean floor, which is owned by no state. 

Stoere said that Norway was not adding to its territory, but simply defining it under international law.

The Commission has established a May 13 deadline for most coastal states to submit limits on their shelves.  Those nations that have not ratified the Law of the Sea treaty, which include the United States, are exempt.