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    Arctic Cabinet Meeting Risks New Cold War for Oil

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    Arctic Cabinet Meeting Risks New Cold War for Oil

    Post by sang_garuda on Thu Aug 28, 2008 8:26 am

    Beneath the melting ice of the Arctic Ocean, the world's last great land grab is under way.

    Global warming is opening the Northwest Passage that sailing ships sought 500 years ago, and some of the world's biggest oil reserves are becoming accessible under the polar sea. Russia, the U.S., Canada, Norway and Denmark are jockeying for territory in moves that could end up in clashing claims.

    With an eye on asserting Canada's stake, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet will travel this week to the Arctic town of Inuvik, as the country completes its largest- ever military exercise in the region. The town, where the summer sun never sets, lies 4,100 kilometers (2,548 miles) from Ottawa.

    ``You have the recipe for trouble if there isn't real energy invested early to help resolve some of these issues,'' said Scott Borgerson, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. ``You can envisage a future in which all the ice is gone, there is this wild-west environment in terms of lack of respect for whatever national law.''

    Western nations are playing catch-up in laying claim to the Arctic. Russia, which planted a titanium flag on the Arctic seabed last year, already deploys strategic-bomber flights to patrol the region. It has also begun training troops for combat in the far north, where temperatures can drop to less than -57 degrees Celsius (-70 degrees Fahrenheit).

    Georgia Parallel

    If Arctic disputes come to a head, the divide between leaders in Moscow and the West may soon stretch beyond Georgia, where a war with Russia broke out this month over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

    ``Events in Georgia should wake people up to what the Russians have been doing,'' said Rob Huebert, associate director of the University of Calgary's Center for Military and Strategic Studies. ``The northern developments are where they're going to get their next major source of petrol dollars and they're going to be very aggressive there.''

    Canada is in the midst of its own military buildup in the Arctic Ocean, an area about the size of Russia. It has budgeted C$7.4 billion for Arctic ships, and its fighter jets regularly shadow Russian TU-95 bombers.

    ``We remind them we want to see their tail end, not their front-end,'' said Defense Minister Peter Mackay, 42, in a telephone interview from a military base in Alert, Nunavut, the world's northernmost inhabited place. ``The presence of Canadian forces is increasingly important to not just claim our sovereignty but exert it.''


    The cabinet's trip, coming weeks before possible parliamentary elections, helps Harper, 49, project the image of a strong leader who fights for Canadians, said Norman Hillmer, a Carleton University professor in Ottawa specializing in Canada's foreign policy.

    Harper is slated to arrive today in Inuvik, population about 3,500, where he'll stay at the MacKenzie Hotel opposite Canada's northernmost traffic light. Before leaving Ottawa, he unveiled a project to map energy and minerals in the region, telling a news conference the known resources are ``merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.''

    On Aug. 28, he'll meet at the hotel with his 13-member core cabinet.

    Tomorrow, Harper crosses the treeless permafrost on a Hercules C130 military transport plane to tour Tuktoyaktuk, an Inuit community on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The next day he makes an announcement on national security.

    ``Every so often, Canadians get seized of the north,'' said Hillmer. ``It comes to the front of our minds mostly when it seems threatened. It seems to be threatened at the moment.''

    Overlapping Claims

    The five Arctic nations have sought to ease the tension. At a two-day summit in Greenland in May, they agreed to work for an ``orderly settlement'' of any conflicting claims.

    Canadian Natural Resource Minister Gary Lunn said at a Madrid conference in July that overlapping claims ``will be minimal,'' while Margaret Hayes, director of the State Department's Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science, told reporters Aug. 11 that Russia's territorial assertions aren't ``intruding'' on U.S. interests.

    ``I don't think we're ever going to have a battle up in the Arctic, at least I hope not,'' Paul Cellucci, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, said in a telephone interview. ``I think these determinations are going to have to be made in some sort of a legal framework and I think ultimately the Russians will understand that as well.''

    `Oil and Gas'

    Under the United Nations Law of the Sea convention, the economic rights of countries on the Arctic Ocean extend 320 kilometers from their shores. They can base claims on the reach of their continental shelf, creating the potential for overlapping stakes.

    ``This is an instance when science has tangible geopolitical consequences,'' Mikhail Flint, said deputy director of ecology at the Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. ``In this case everything is related to oil and gas.''

    The combination of rising temperatures and soaring oil prices is fueling the urgency of the land rush.

    The region is warming about twice as fast as the global average, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in a report last year. The fabled Northwest Passage, a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, opened this year for only the second time in recorded history.

    Retreating Ice

    The retreat of the ice may allow oil companies to explore the deepest parts of the Arctic Ocean year-round as petroleum- rich nations in the Middle East, Latin America and the former Soviet Union restrict access to reserves.

    The Arctic may hold 90 billion barrels of oil, more than the proven reserves of Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Mexico combined, and enough to supply the U.S. for more than a decade, the U.S. Geological Survey said in July.

    The Russians aren't the only worry for Canada. The U.S. contests Canada's sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, which could shrink travel between Shanghai and New Jersey by 7,000 kilometers, and the two are disputing a sliver of water just north of Alaska.

    Building a military and civilian presence in the region is key to Canadian control of its Arctic resources, officials say.

    ``I don't believe we should be out there assuming the others don't want to cooperate,'' said former Prime Minister Paul Martin, 69, Harper's predecessor, in a telephone interview. ``But if that occurs, then we should be able to respond very quickly.''


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