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The Arctic, an area once entombed in ice, is melting, revealing land and a seabed as rich in oil and minerals as any in history, but the U.S. lacks legitimacy to claim a stake in those riches because of Congress’ repeated opposition to a U.N. treaty.
In terms of population, the U.S. is the second-largest Arctic nation, after Russia. “If you don’t live in Alaska, you don’t think of yourself as an Artic state,” which is a big problem, says Paul Stronski, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
‘Washington cannot claim an exclusive zone off the coast of Alaska because it never ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.’
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Not thinking about the Arctic as a critical economic and geopolitical region is fast becoming a problem. According to the United Nations, the ice cap there has retreated about 40 percent since 2007, and with the thaw comes access to billions — maybe trillions — of dollars in untouched resources. The thaw is opening shipping routes, access to proven oil and gas reserves and some of the world’s largest mines and even opportunities for tourism.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic holds 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13 percent of its crude oil, most of it offshore. Economic estimates for oil and gas in the U.S. Arctic alone exceed $1 trillion, according to the U.S. Navy’s latest Arctic road map.
Countries whose continental shelf extends for more than 200 nautical miles into the Arctic Ocean are Arctic states with exclusive rights to exploit any resources there, according to the U.N. law.
‘The Arctic is an unalienable part of the Russian Federation that has been under our sovereignty for a few centuries. And it will be so for the time to come.’
“Washington cannot claim an exclusive zone off the coast of Alaska because it never ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which dates back to 1982,” writes Paul Stronski, who served as a senior analyst on Russian domestic politics for the State Department’s Bureau on Intelligence and Research.
The convention governs the world’s oceans, including setting ground rules for the Arctic about jurisdictional lines. “It’s the overarching framework, the bedrock of international law in oceans management, and embarrassingly the United States has not yet joined this treaty,” says Scott Borgerson, a co-founder of the Arctic Circle, a nonprofit organization.
The U.S. is the only Arctic nation and the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council not to have ratified the convention; other nonsignatory countries include Libya, Syria and Venezuela. The convention has been ratified by 166 nations.
Yet the U.S. has used the law to challenge China’s claims to the South China Sea, which are contested by various other nations. The U.S. State Department has consistently called on China to “explain its justification under international law” — the same law it hasn’t ratified.
On multiple occasions, President Barack Obama has urged Congress to ratify the law of the sea, and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did as well when they were president. The last push came in 2012 but was handily defeated in the Senate, despite Defense Department and Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommendations that the U.S. accede to the treaty.
“Accession would secure our navigation and overflight rights throughout the Arctic and strengthen our arguments for freedom of navigation,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifiedat a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in 2012.
But opposition, spearheaded by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, claims it takes away U.S. sovereignty and exposes the country to fraudulent environmental lawsuits. “The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea would not confer any maritime right or freedom that the U.S. does not already enjoy,” writes Steven Groves, the head of the foundation.
“That gap between the rhetoric and the stated interest on paper and what’s happening on the ground is probably largest for the U.S. for an Arctic state,” MalteHumpert, the executive director of the Arctic Institute, told Mashable in an interview.
By not ratifying the U.N. law, the U.S. is surrendering its ability to stake a legal claim over the territories in the Arctic and to legitimately dispute other nations’ territorial claims over the resource-rich region.
Economic estimates for oil and gas in the US Arctic exceed $1 trillion, according to the Navy.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of “illegitimate expansionism” in the Arctic in 2012 and advocated participating in the U.N. convention to provide the U.S. with a tool to stave off such jurisdictional advances.
Advances such as those made by Russia.
Mincing no words, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in 2013, “The Arctic is an unalienable part of the Russian Federation that has been under our sovereignty for a few centuries. And it will be so for the time to come.”
In August of this year, Russia laid claim to 463,000 square miles of Arctic territory — a bid that will ultimately be ruled on by the United Nations. Russia submitted a similar claim in 2002, but the U.N. rejected it for lack of scientific support.
“Russia has tremendous ambitions in the Arctic, including to become an oil and gas exporter from the region,” says Stronski, who served as a senior analyst on Russian domestic politics for the State Department’s bureau on intelligence and research.
Beyond legislation, devoting scant resources to the region hurts U.S. credibility in Arctic matters. On a three-day visit to Alaska, Obama sought to correct some of that by announcing a plan to buy more icebreakers to help with access to the region. While Russia has 40 icebreakers, with another 11 planned or under construction, the U.S. heavy-duty vessel fleet is down to one.
That state of affairs has led to renewed calls for the U.S. to ratify the U.N. Law of the Sea and transform itself into an Arctic nation.