On August 2, 2007, the Russian research vessel Akademik Fiodorov launched two mini-submarines Mir-1 and Mir-2 to place a Russian flag near the North Pole and scoop water and soil samples. The move gave rise to much controversy over Russia’s high-profile claim to the seabed under the Arctic Ocean, especially in the United States and Canada.
Indeed, the issue is quite controversial. More than one million square kilometers of territory under the Arctic Ocean may contain billions of tons of hydrocarbons, not to mention diamonds and metal ores. The question is: Who actually carried out the estimate? Is it based on reliable data? There are other questions to be answered. For instance, one may wonder whether the Lomonosov Ridge, running across the North Pole, is really a continuation of Russia’s continental shelf as claimed by members of the Arctic mission. Did the placing of the Russian flag at the North Pole help improve Russia’s chances of claiming the shelf? And, last but not least, do Russia’s claims hold any water? Yulduz Halliulin, assistant to the director of the Russian Institute of Oceanography under the Russian Academy of Sciences, speaks with Nezavizimaya Gazeta about issues pertaining to the latest Russian polar venture.
NG: The Russian Arctic expedition created too much controversy in the press all over the world. Could you please clear up certain details relating to the mission?
YH: The deployment of the Russian mini-subs to a depth of more than four kilometers near the North Pole was a noticeable event, according to our scientists. The manned underwater vessels went down to such a depth for the first time in history. Needless to say, the endeavor was not easy to complete. For instance, the mini-subs had to look for an air hole in the ice for 40 minutes after surfacing. Your compass simply does not work when you are in close proximity to the North Pole. From now onwards, Artur Chilingarov, Anatoly Sagalevich, Vladimir Gruzdev and Evgeni Chernyaev will be mentioned on a par with Edmund Hillary and Tenzieg Norgeim, who climbed to the top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, on May 29, 1953. Incidentally, the Mir-1 and Mir-2 mini-subs were designed by our institute – the fact fills me up with a special kind of pride.
The mission is an event of major symbolic significance. It may as well have a geopolitical impact on other countries by prompting them to carry out research into the Arctic. However, a single dive can hardly prove anything in terms of scientific value. Besides, the dive took place in the Amundsen hollow whose bed is not connected with the Lomonosov Ridge in any way.
NG: Then why did it spark up such a fuss? Why did the foreign countries interpret Russia’s polar venture as if it was meant to lay claim to the North Pole and to a lion’s share of the Arctic as well?
YH: Speaking of the delimitation of boundaries, the above mentioned ‘lion’s share’ used to belong to the Soviet Union, at least on paper. Back in 1926, the Soviet government issued a decree to declare that that the country’s northernmost boundaries should reach up to the North Pole, running along the longitude lines to the middle of the Bering Strait on the east and up to the point of the land boundary on the west. Hence the emergence of the so-called ‘Russian triangle,’ which is at the heart of a lively debate these days. Actually, the triangle has to do with an area in the Arctic Ocean measuring up to 1.2 million square kilometers. It is obvious that the decree was purely declarative in nature. But no country bothered to refute it because no one showed interest in the Arctic ice at the time
The basic provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea were agreed upon in 1982 following longtime international talks.
The provisions covered many legal issues relating to the continental self. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country can claim exclusive economic rights within 200 miles of its continental shelf. Additionally, the 200-mile zone can be enlarged to approximately 82 miles if a country is able to prove that its continental shelf is actually an extension of its continental platform.
We will see the continental shelves of at least four countries converging in the Arctic Ocean if we consider the problem in terms of legal aspects pertaining to the 200-mile economic zone.
We are talking about mostly of Russia’s Siberian continental shelf going from the east; the U.S. continental shelf that goes from the side of Alaska; the Danish continental shelf that goes from the side of Greenland, and Canada’s continental shelf that meets at a point of the North Pole.
NG: In other words, we are talking only about the boundaries of economic zones without referring to the countries’ political borders. Is this correct?
YH: That is correct. All the neighboring polar countries will have to hold talks on the delineation of those boundaries if the issue needs to be settled once and for all. Norway and Russia are the only two countries which have been holding such talks. Other countries still have to join the process.
To determine whether the area in question is a continuation of Russia’s continental shelf, Russia needs to carry out a large-scale research into the seabed, using vessels on location to do deep drilling in the Lomonosov Ridge for taking samples to conduct their chemical, geological and electromagnetic analysis. We need to back up our claim to the area by presenting detailed publications with enough evidence so that an independent UN commission may look into them and decide whether they contain solid scientific and legal grounds to support the claim. That is the reason why Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made rather cautious statements on the mission, as you have probably noticed.
NG: What is actually “at stake?” Does the area really contain billions of tons of hydrocarbons?
YH: The subject area of the Arctic Ocean seabed is thought to contain up to 10 billion tons of hydrocarbons. The estimates are based on the results of a preliminary analysis, and therefore further scientific evidence should be gathered. Initial studies revealed signs of hydrocarbons, mostly condensed gas reserves, which are probably deposited in the area. To know the exact volume of the reserves, we need to do work similar to that carried out in the Shtokman gas field of the Barents Sea.
In 1981, scientists at our institute came up with a proposal that the above field might contain huge reserves of gas. Seven years later the Soviet Ministry of Geology conducted a drilling program in the area and hit the gas deposits, which are currently estimated at 4 billion cubic meters.
It stands to reason that the issue is not limited to proving the existence of condensed gas reserves in the seabed under the Arctic Ocean. The development of natural reserves in the ice-clad regions is a real challenge. I don’t think any of the countries involved in the dispute is now technologically capable of developing hydrocarbons hidden under the Arctic Ocean. The technology should be available in some 20-30 years, as far as I am concerned. No wonder that all the countries are getting increasingly interested in having a slice of that potentially energy-rich area under the Arctic Ocean as the world’s reserves of oil and gas keep running low. I believe all the interested parties should join forces to resolve this controversial issue through cooperation. Opting for a confrontation policy will not get us anywhere.
In some 5-10 years from now the international community will have to hold a conference on issues related to economic cooperation in the Arctic Ocean seabed, I am quite certain of that.
Translated by Guerman Grachev