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Arctic

Russia just claimed a broad swath of the Arctic shelf; why isn't the US doing the same?

  • Author:
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published August 8, 2015

Earlier this week, Russia renewed its claim to 460,000 square miles of territory in the Arctic Ocean -- including the North Pole -- and the rights to that area's enormous reserves of energy and mineral resources.

Other countries such as Norway and Denmark are also submitting claims to the United Nations to extend their Arctic jurisdiction into the region of the North Pole. Besides the right to natural resources, owning new Arctic real estate could give these countries control over shipping routes that open as sea ice melts.

While Alaska's northern coastline already gives the United States a piece of the Arctic pie, federal officials have not sought international recognition for an expansion of U.S. territorial claims, as other countries are doing. An executive order to better coordinate Arctic policy issued earlier this year and an upcoming visit to Alaska by President Barack Obama suggest the administration is looking north. So why is the U.S. sitting out what appears to be a scramble to secure territory claims in the region?

The short answer is the U.S. is one of only a handful of countries -- and the only Arctic nation -- that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty that governs the rights and responsibilities of seafaring countries.

Under the terms of the 1982 treaty, nations automatically exercise sovereignty out to 200 miles from their coastlines. Even without signing on to the treaty, the U.S. currently benefits from exclusive economic rights in the 200-mile zone -- by controlling fishing off Alaska's coast, for example.

But unlike the treaty's signatories, the U.S. cannot gain international recognition for an additional category of territory known as the extended continental shelf. This underwater geological formation is seen by the treaty as a natural continuation of a nation's land. It's the extent of the continental shelf that Russia is attempting to define in its claim to the U.N.

In 2002, when Russia initially laid claim to Arctic areas, the U.N. rejected its petition, citing the lack of scientific support. But now Russia has submitted reams of evidence including geological charts and underwater survey data. The U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf will examine Russia's submission when it convenes early next year.

The debate over the treaty

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, has long called for the U.S. Senate to accede to the convention and claim the U.S. extended continental shelf as other Arctic nations have done.

"This same opportunity is open to the United States of America -- and we could submit an application for an area in the Arctic the size of California -- were we to also sign onto the Law of the Sea," Murkowski said in an email relayed by a spokesperson.

There's more than merely the symbolism of territorial expansion at stake.

The U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Task Force, an interagency body headed by the State Department that directs a mission to map out the ocean floor beyond the 200-mile limit and conduct other scientific research, estimates the U.S. Arctic seabed could yield trillions of dollars worth of oil, natural gas, and minerals such as manganese nodules, ferromanganese crusts, and polymetallic sulfides.

Signing the treaty could also give the Coast Guard authority to ban ships engaging in environmentally harmful activities from waters within U.S.-claimed areas.

Former Alaska Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, said ratifying the agreement would be "a very important thing for the Arctic, providing certainty and clarifying rights and responsibilities."

Ulmer has a wide range of supporters including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the military, most oil companies and Greenpeace. Alaska politicians past and present have also advocated for the treaty, including senators Frank Murkowski, the late Ted Stevens and Mark Begich. The Bush and Obama administrations have both pushed the Senate, the only body that can ratify international agreements, to take action.

But a Republican Party faction that's deeply skeptical of such international agreements is large enough to block the two-thirds majority needed for ratification.

"There has been broad, bipartisan support for ratification in the past," Ulmer said. "But those who are opposed have very intense feelings of anxiety about ratifying the treaty. Anything having to do with the United Nations or international agreements seems to be unpopular these days."

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan opposes signing the treaty, saying it "could result in the United Nations imposing taxes on American entities." The senator's current position reflects a departure from his official advocacy for the Law of the Sea treaty while serving as U.S. assistant secretary of state during the Bush administration.

Sullivan called Russia's use of the treaty to gain recognition for Arctic claims the "latest attempt to grab territory in the Arctic," pointing to a series of military activities in the region.

The proper U.S. response, he said, would be to increase "our physical presence in the Arctic" by deploying military forces, and investing in infrastructure and resource development. But instead, he said in an email relayed by his spokesperson, Obama administration officials "seem more focused on climate change."

"Right now, the Russians are playing chess in the Arctic and our Administration still seems to think it's tic-tac-toe," he said.

Mead Treadwell, a former Republican Alaska lieutenant governor who has long worked on Arctic issues shares some of Sullivan's misgivings about the U.N. but he still supports the treaty, noting the current version was fought for by the Reagan Administration.

"There are ways to address conservative concerns on the treaty," he said. "If it takes a moderate change to the treaty, that is better than scrapping it altogether."

Alternatively, Treadwell said the U.S. could become a signatory but refuse to send money to the International Seabed Authority, a U.N. body. "We could show that the money we invest in oceans in this country is a contribution in kind."

But political prospects for amending the treaty are dim, and provisions on in-kind contributions are not clearly defined, according to Arctic law and policy experts.

'There is no race for the Arctic'

Some Arctic policy leaders, such as Ulmer, believe international events could trigger a shift in the American position.

"One thing that may change the attitude of some senators is if other countries get their claims approved," said Ulmer. "If the U.S. is the only Arctic nation that hasn't ratified the treaty and been able to submit its claim, perhaps that will be enough of a tipping point."

In the meantime, the federal continental shelf task force has been studying the potential for Arctic territorial expansion by surveying the seabed off the coast of Alaska.

Since 2003, the task force's agencies have completed 12 missions to map out the seafloor and determine the composition of soil layers.

Arctic law expert Betsy Baker, who worked with task force, and accompanied noted oceanographer Larry Mayer on Arctic research trips, said future surveys are not planned at this point.

"They have gathered most of the data they need in the Arctic," she said. Mayer, an expert on mapping the U.S. Arctic seafloor, was on a Swedish vessel surveying waters off Greenland, and couldn't be reached for further comment.

The amount of data required to submit a claim, were the U.S. to join the treaty today, depends on its size and extent.

"It's up to each country to determine if it has the scientific research to back the claims it is submitting," Baker said.

Perceptions aside, Baker says, there is no real advantage in international law given to countries that claim territory first. "There's no race for the Arctic," she said.

The U.N. commission reviewing Russian claims is made up of scientists, and they evaluate the research data. They have no authority to decide in cases of boundary disputes, according to Baker. Countries must work out the differences on their own.

In the meantime, as Arctic countries invest heavily in oceanography, they are making their findings public.

"The big win is that we have more information," Baker said.

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