Claiming Arctic Sovereignty When the Russians planted a flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean last year, it triggered a geopolitical squabble. Five nations are meeting in Greenland this week to figure out who can claim the Northwest Passage.
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Claiming Arctic Sovereignty

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Claiming Arctic Sovereignty

Claiming Arctic Sovereignty

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, first, home brewed beer, now home-brewed fuel.

CHADWICK: First, who owns the Arctic Ocean? Five countries border it. Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S. all sent top officials to a meeting in Greenland yesterday to discuss what will happen as global warming makes the Arctic accessible. It's believed valuable oil and gas deposits lie beneath the ice bed. Environmentalists want to see the whole area protected. Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia has been tracking the events. He joins us. Michael Byers, what happened at this meeting yesterday? And what are the disputes that lie ahead of us?

Professor MICHAEL BYERS (University of British Columbia): Well, at the meeting in Greenland, they collectively reaffirmed a commitment to the existing rules of international law governing the division of the Arctic Ocean seabed and under those rules, which exist as customary international law and also in the UN convention on the law of the sea, any coastal state can claim a continental shelf, not just to the traditional 200 nautical miles, but 100 or more miles beyond that, if they can demonstrate that the shelf beyond 200 nautical miles is a natural prolongation of the shelf closer in shore.

CHADWICK: Well, would that include an ice shelf?

Prof. BYERS: Not an ice shelf. We are talking about the ocean floor and essentially the continental margin, the underwater part of the continent that extends off shore before it drops off to the very deep ocean. And it's those continental shelves that contain the potentially oil and gas bearing areas that the five countries are very interested in.

CHADWICK: So, the five countries can all claim at least a part of the great Arctic cap up there, but isn't the center of - the very center of the cap, it seems to me, would be, that's just kind of open territory, isn't it?

Prof. BYERS: It is in the sense that the North Pole itself is located in 12,000 feet of water and therefore is not on any continental margin. It's not susceptible to a claim under the existing rules of international law. But again, it is not actually all that important from an economic sense because there are unlikely to be any oil-bearing sediments that far down. When the Russians went to the North Pole last summer and planted a titanium Russian flag on the ocean floor, that wasn't actually a legal claim. In fact, the Russian Foreign Minister admitted as much earlier this week. It was a publicity stunt directed mostly at Russian domestic public opinion.

CHADWICK: Well, what about the opinion of the rest of the world? The opinion of the environmental community? How will the environmentalists look at what has happened this week? Are they happy with the - with things to go on as they have been?

Prof. BYERS: Well, I think the point of view of many environmentalists is that we should have a treaty that protects the Arctic Ocean by excluding any mineral or oil exploration and development. And I share that aspiration, but I also realize that it's very difficult to negotiate an effective multilateral treaty, especially in a time of 130-dollar-a-barrel oil. And we have a pretty good legal regime in place with these rules concerning the laws of the sea. And so my priority is to encourage the five countries involved to work with those rules as a starting point, so that we at least know who owns what and avoid a kind of gold rush, Wild West scenario that could bring chaos and conflict.

CHADWICK: There has been a kind of bristling quality to the dialogue that goes on between these five nations that border the Arctic, some kind of hard language over the course of the last year. Do things seem better in some way? That this meeting has concluded now, and that everyone has walked away saying, hey, we are going to go on being friends?

Prof. BYERS: Well, I think the main purpose that Denmark called this meeting, was to change the paradigm before this summer's ice melt begins. You are right, the rhetoric became fairly heated last summer, and Denmark wanted to bring the five countries together to remind everyone that there is lot of rule of law in place and that a great deal of cooperation is already taking place also. And so to send a different message, a message of cooperation. That common desire to work within the rule of law.

CHADWICK: Day to Day, always happy to get out good news. Michael Byers is Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. Michael, thank you.

Prof. BYERS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: There's more coming up, on Day to Day.

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