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First the space race, now this

Russia stakes a claim to the North Pole in pursuit of oil. Some urge America to follow.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published August 6, 2007

[Special to the Times]
Russia hopes that planting a titaniumen-cased flag beneath the North Pole will help support its claims to more Arctic territory and natural resources.

The polar ice cap has shrunken so much this summer that on July 15 a British lawyer was able to take an 18-minute dip in the Arctic Ocean to dramatize the effects of global warming.

"It's a tragedy that it's possible to swim at the North Pole," Lewis Gordon Pugh said after emerging from the frigid waters.

But if melting ice caps could cause a devastating rise in sea levels, they could also make it easier to explore the Arctic's potentially vast oil and gas reserves. That's why Russian scientists symbolically staked a claim to the North Pole last week - and why the Senate is under growing pressure to ratify a treaty that would protect U.S. interests in what may be a highly contested part of the world.

"Russia is claiming some areas that we could also potentially claim," said Frank Muller-Karger, a University of South Florida professor and member of a national commission on ocean policy. "We are going to lose out if we are not careful."

The United States is the only country bordering the Arctic that has not ratified the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea. Under the treaty, countries can expand their territorial limits - now about 200 miles from shore - if they can prove their continental shelves extend farther into the sea. That could add thousands of square miles to the area from which a nation could extract oil or other natural resources.

Russia, which signed the treaty in 1997, already has tried to claim almost half of the Arctic Ocean. On Thursday, two small Russian submarines planted a titanium capsule with the Russian flag on the ocean floor 2 1/2 miles beneath the North Pole.

The Danes, meanwhile, could a make a case that they own the North Pole and surrounding seabed if they can prove that Denmark, a treaty member since 2001, is linked to the pole via an underwater mountain range.

The Law of the Sea is supported by the Bush administration, the Pentagon and the American Petroleum Institute. But it is opposed by conservative senators who say it could put international restrictions on U.S. maritime activities.

"Right now we have total control," Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told USA Today. "There's a little sovereignty left in America. Let's hold on to it."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the treaty in 2004 but it never got to the Senate floor, where it probably would have lacked the two-thirds vote needed for approval. However, Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, who earlier this year said he had "great concerns" about the measure, now is looking more favorably at it, spokesman Ken Lundberg said Friday.

"He's inclined to support it, a lot because of military reasons," Lundberg said.

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen has urged ratification of the treaty, saying it would greatly enhance U.S. security by providing a legal basis for interdicting drug traffickers, illegal immigrants and potential terrorists "far beyond our own waters."

Allen also noted what may become the treaty's key selling point: It would enable the United States - the world's biggest energy consumer - to claim rights to natural resources beyond the current 200-mile territorial limit.

Few areas have caused as much excitement as the Arctic, which may contain as much as a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves. If it ratified the treaty, the United States could petition for a swath of Arctic seabed larger than California, the New York Times has reported.

With their submarine voyage to the North Pole, however, the Russians quickly are getting the upper hand in a true cold war. The Independent of London splashed the news across its entire front page Friday, calling it a "giant leap" for the Kremlin.

"The Russians are going to systematically put through the legal framework to extend their 200-mile limit and put in their claim," said Muller-Karger of USF.

"Not only are we not going to be able to do that without ratifying the treaty, we cannot argue against the Russians. It's a competition and people are going to try to maximize their claims in any way possible."

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at

[Last modified August 6, 2007, 07:15:20]

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