Nations surrounding the Arctic are currently submitting claims to extend their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and the Russian Federation is one of the claimants that wishes to extend their EEZ into the Arctic Ocean. Russia will exploit any resources they can in this area and increase shipping activity, opportunities made possible by the melting of sea ice in the Arctic. Both of these activities will lead to the emission of more greenhouse gasses and contribute to the climate crisis, creating a positive feedback loop. The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines how a country can extend their EEZ by proving that the area meets certain requirements. The Russian Federation has identified an area of the Arctic Ocean and underlaying sediment that meets these requirements and has produced science to support its claim. Despite the potential to further exasperate CO2 emissions, based on UNCLOS the Russian Federation has a valid claim to this land and should be granted an extension of their EEZ. International agreements will have to be reached in order to address competing claims.
Global climate change has caused ice caps to melt in the Arctic (Kay 2011). This has opened up major economic resources to exploitation, including oil and natural gas reserves. If these reserves are exploited, they would contribute to global climate change caused by the greenhouse effect that would then continue to cause ice melting in the Arctic. The lessening of sea ice has also led to an increase in shipping traffic in the region, which further contributes to the global warming cycle.
The area that a country is allowed to harvest resources from is called their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The boundaries of these zones are determined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and extend to either 200 nautical miles or to the boundary of the continental margin as determined in UNCLOS. The continental margin is described as “the submerged prolongation of the land mass of the coastal State, and consists of the seabed and subsoil of the shelf, the slope and the rise. It does not include the deep ocean floor with its oceanic ridges or the subsoil thereof” (UNCLOS). After each nation ratifies UNCLOS they have 10 years to petition for their EEZ to be extended under this definition as long as it also meets other criteria. The area needs a sedimentary deposit that is at least the depth of 1% of the distance from the point to the continental slope. This rule has a few exceptions, including that the point cannot go farther than 350 nautical miles or past the 2,500 meter isobath.
Russia is one of the nations that has petitioned to extend their EEZ. This would put many Arctic oil reserves inside of Russia’s EEZ which would open them to potential extraction. The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) makes determinations on these proposals.
The Russian Federation originally submitted a claim in 2001. This original claim went through the UNCLOS process and was reviewed by CLCS. The commission made several recommendations to the Russian Federation that were taken into account within a 2015 revised submission. The recommendations included the following: that both the Lomonosov Ridge and Alpha-Mendeleev Ridge complex could not be considered submarine so they could be claimed, and also that in the new proposal the Russians needed to follow the scientific and technical guides. Now Russia is claiming less land and has launched several scientific expeditions to conduct experiments on the ridges in question to ascertain their nature and prove that they have the required sedimentation to be considered continental in nature. In the Executive Summary of the Partial Revised Submission of the Russian Federation to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in Respect to the Continental Shelf of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Ocean (Executive Summary) Russia uses acoustic basement profiling to determine that features like the Lomonosov Ridge are continental in nature and not oceanic to support the recommendation of the Commission. This matches the main consensus in current scientific literature (Rekant 2019), although it is worth noting that most of the peer reviewed literature that currently addresses this is Russian.
Geology of the Arctic
The Arctic region has a very complex geologic history and is comprised of two main tectonic plates, the North American Plate and the Eurasian plate as well as a microplate. Gekkel Ridge is a spreading center that separates the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate. It is oceanic in nature and cannot be claimed as part of an EEZ. Lomonosov ridge was determined to be partially comprised of the same rock that creates the Siberian Peninsula which is part of the North American Plate. The Lomonosov Ridge is sectioned into three parts, the Siberian, Central, and North American (Rekant 2019). This will become important when looking at competing claims on the ridge.
Russia Development Philosophy
The Russian Federation has been putting high priority on expanding their oil and natural gas programs. In 2008 the Russian President was quoted, saying “Of course, our foremost goal is to transform the Arctic into Russia’s resource base in the 21st century…” (Sidortsov 2019). Russia has demonstrated that they put high value on the benefits that come from resource extraction and low value on the possible risks.
More recently, President Putin signed into effect new laws that support extracting oil in the Arctic, with the Russian ministry saying the policy prepares the Arctic for “major natural resource exploitation in the region and helps develop the Northern Sea Route” (Staalesen 2020). Part of this is lowering production taxes on big oil companies—all new hydrocarbon production will have a five percent tax and all new oil production will be tax free in order to draw developers into the region (Staalesen 2020).
Russia is currently the fourth largest emitter of CO2 and has formally ratified the Paris Climate accords. However, their emission goals are so high that they allow Russia to increase emissions as long as they stay under the Soviet Union era emissions. This means that if Russia gains access to new oil fields they are under no obligation to keep their emissions where they are now, and can increase them.
The Russian Federation’s claims are directly competing with claims of Denmark and Canada. Denmark (via ownership of Greenland), and Canada have also claimed parts Lomonosov Ridge, which is a key part of Russia’s claim. Greenland has claimed the entire ridge as part of their claim and Canada a section just North of its northernmost landmass. The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf can only determine if the area that each nation identifies as potentially being part of their continental margin meets the qualifications set forth by UNCLOS, they cannot make any rulings on boundaries between two nations. These nations would have to come together independently and determine boundaries between their states. If they cannot come to an agreement on their own under Article 287 of UNLCOS the nations can chose from four different adjudication options to solve the dispute.
Oil and Natural Gas reserves
The Arctic is home to large oil and natural gas reserves. There are several challenges in accessing them, one of which is the extent of sea ice. However, as the average sea ice extent decreases it becomes easier to access some of the resources. This opens up opportunities for Arctic nations.
There is an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil in the Arctic that have not been exploited. This is the equivalent of 5.9% of the worlds known oil resources, and is 110% of Russia’s known oil reserves at this time (Desjardins 2016). Eight-four percent of these reserves are estimated to be offshore in the Arctic Ocean. All of the land that Russia is claiming in their revised petition to the Convention is projected to contain large amounts of oil reserves. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one barrel of oil emits approximately .43 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. If all of the oil in the Arctic was extracted (not just in the Russian EEZ) it would be the equivalent of releasing 38.7 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is about seven times the amount of CO2 that the United States releases per year.
There are also natural gas fields that will open to exploitation if Russia’s or other countries’ claims are approved. There is an estimated 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the Arctic. That is 24% of the worlds known natural gas reserves and is equivalent to 99% of Russia’s known reserves (Desjardins 2016). Many natural gasses have a higher warming potential than CO2, meaning that smaller amounts of them can cause more warming.
There has also been an increase of shipping in the area. With the decrease of sea ice more ships have been able to go through the Northern Sea Route, which is about one third the distance of the Southern Sea Route through the Suez Canal (Bekkers 2015). This route takes ships through the Russian Federation EEZ which Russia has been able to capitalize on by creating fees and specialized custom clearance for the ships (Bekkers 2015), as well as creating 10 relief ports along the route. The increase in shipping adds CO2 and other greenhouse gasses to part of the world that is especially affected by increases in greenhouse gases.
Russia should be given the rights to some of the continental shelf they are claiming, which may result in an increase in Russian emissions. The Law of the Sea clearly defines what is considered an Exclusive Economic Zone. Russia has gone through the correct processes to extend their EEZ and have documented the geologic history of the Arctic to support their claim. Based on these criteria the Russian Federation’s EEZ should be extended where it does not intersect a competing claim from another nation. Based on current laws the climatic impacts of Russia or others exploiting these areas cannot be taken into account when making this decision.
Russia and Denmark should utilize current scientific knowledge in their negotiations of Lomonosov Ridge. The ridge does connect the continental margins of both nations. Looking at the segmentation of the ridge can help understand which parts of it come from the shelves of the nations. Russia should be given the rights to the Siberian portion of the ridge and Denmark should be given the rights to the North American portion based on the geologic history of the area. If Denmark does not accept the science behind the finding of segmentation of Lomonosov ridge they should support an expedition onto the ridge to further the scientific understanding of the area.
Shipping lanes will continue to be a topic of discussion in the Arctic. The Arctic Council should make recommendation on regulations for the ships that enter the Arctic. This could take the form of emission regulations including sulfates.
Overall, as ice melts in the Arctic this will open more ways for the Arctic to be exploited. This is a problem that will continue to aggravate the problem of climate change. However, fears of the consequences that will come from Russia or other countries expanding their EEZs in the Arctic are not a reason to ignore international law and valid claims in the Arctic. If the goal is protecting the Arctic then other laws and agreements need to be made to insure its protection.
Bekkers, Eddy, and Joseph F Francois. Melting Ice Caps and the Economic Impact of Opening the Northern Sea Route. CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, May 2015, boris.unibe.ch/89212/1/Melting Ice Caps.pdf.
Desjardins, Jeff. “This Infographic Shows How Gigantic the Arctic’s Undiscovered Oil Reserves Might Be.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 7 Apr. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/how-gigantic-arctics-undiscovered-oil-reserves-might-be-2016-4.
Kay, J. E., M. M. Holland, and A. Jahn (2011). “Inter-annual to Multi-decadal Arctic Sea Ice Extent Trends in a Warming World,” Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L15708.
Russian Federation “Executive Summary of the Partial Revised Submission of the Russian Federation to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in Respect to the Continental Shelf of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Ocean”
Rekant, P., et al. “Basement Segmentation and Tectonic Structure of the Lomonosov Ridge, Arctic Ocean: Insights from Bedrock Geochronology.” Journal of Geodynamics 128 (2019): 38-54. Print.
Sidortsov, R. “Benefits over Risks: A Case Study of Government Support of Energy Development in the Russian North.” Energy Policy 129 (2019): 132-38. Print.
Staalesen, Atle, and Krestia DeGeorge. “Putin Signs Russia’s New Arctic Master Plan.” ArcticToday, 6 Mar. 2020, www.arctictoday.com/putin-signs-russias-new-arctic-master-plan/?wallit_nosession=1.