Friday, August 10, 2007

Russian Arctic Oil Grab.

I picked the elements of this up on the news in Switzerland last week, but my German not being quite as good as it was when I worked there for several months of the year, I thought I had misheard. However, it is true that Russia has used two mini-submarines to plant a one metre-high Russian flag (made out of the highly resilient metal, titanium) on the underwater Lomonosov ridge, which it claims is directly connected to its continental shelf. The Canadians particularly are rather annoyed at this maneuver, which they compare with a fifteenth century colonial land-grab. [As I recall from history, the British were rather apposite in such matters, and thereby built an empire].

At a depth of 4,300 metres, the mini-vessels Mir-1 and Mir-2 (wasn't "Mir" also the name of their space-station, meaning both "peace" and "world" in Russian?) sampled water and sediment from the sea-bed in an effort to substantiate their claim that the ridge is a part of their national territory. This is no mean matter, as it is estimated that there are 10 billion tonnes of hydrocarbons there, which amounts to 73 billion barrels of oil. As I recall, Russia has around 80 billion barrels of oil in its reserves (about the same as Venezuela), in addition to its vast gas-fields. How this arctic reserves will break-down into oil and gas is anyone's guess, as indeed is the deduced total, but the amount is substantial in anybody's language, being equal to about two and a half years' worth of world oil consumption, if it can all be extracted, which probably it can't.

It is an interesting mission in any case, although only yellowish gravel has been found so far, and no deep-sea creatures. I would bet there are bacteria down there, however. In an interview on CTV, the Canadian foreign minister said: "This isn't the 15th century. You can't just go around the world and just plant flags and say, we're claiming this territory. There is no threat to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic... we're not at all concerned about this mission. Basically it's just a show by Russia."

Under the UN convention on the law of the sea, Canada, Norway, the US, Russia and Denmark (through its governance of Greenland) have economic rights over a 200 mile wide area around the north of their coastline. This rule is subject to appeal nonetheless, and there are disputes over the limits of this zone. For example, Russia claims that its Siberian shelf is linked directly to the Lomonosov ridge, which is an undersea mountain range running 1,240 miles across the north pole, and in 2001 a claim was advanced from Moscow to the UN, based on geological measurements that this was indeed the case. However, the results were dismissed but it is expected that Russia will make a resubmission in 2009.

When asked if sediment samples from the seabed could prove the case for a common identity for the Lomonosov ridge and the Siberian shelf, Kim Holmen, who is the research director for the Norwegian Polar Institute, said: "In a geological sense, yes, but in the cartographical and political sense, no. The United States and Europe were at one time connected, but Scotland cannot claim that the US is part of its territory because of that. These samples cannot prove once and for all that the whole discussion is over. Depth soundings and other data would also be needed to stake a claim."

It is true that all continents originated from a single land-mass called Pangea, but became separated through continental drift, juxtaposed with the tectonic boundaries, such as the north Atlantic Ridge upon which Iceland sits. Whatever conclusion arrives, I daresay that politics will trump its hand over geology, especially with so much at stake.

Related Reading.

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