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Socialism Today 113 - November 2007

The scramble for Arctic resources

WHEN RUSSIAN submarines planted a flag 4,000 metres below the ice at the North Pole last August, they were signifying a new stage in the scramble for control of the potential resources of the Arctic. Ironically, the shrinking of the ice cover, along with the increasing price of oil, could make extraction of gas, oil and minerals more economically feasible. Global warming, linked to greenhouse gases produced in the burning of fossil fuels, has been identified as a factor in this year’s reduction of Arctic sea ice to its smallest area of coverage since satellite measurements began 30 years ago.

Russian explorer and leader of the expedition, Artur Chilingarov, said: "The Arctic is ours". The Canadian foreign minister’s response was: "This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory’."

It is certainly true that we are witnessing a new phase in the old imperialist battle between rival national capitalisms. Each greedy government strives to grab as much territory, or in this case sea floor, as it can for itself in order to maximise the profits for its own companies. This is not just happening in the Arctic, but in all the world’s deep oceans. There is a lot to fight over. According to one estimate, under the Arctic alone there are 25% of the world’s oil reserves, plus gas and many mineral resources. In addition, there are untapped fishing grounds.

Given the political problems for the western capitalist powers in some of the world’s key oil producing areas such as the Middle East, this potential becomes even more attractive to these governments.

All the countries bordering the Arctic are staking a claim: Denmark (because it possesses Greenland), Finland, Norway, Iceland, Russia, Canada – and the US (because of Alaska) undoubtedly will do. The UN convention on the Law of the Sea gives nations the right to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) which is 200 nautical miles (360 km) from their coastline (including offshore islands). But this zone can be extended if they can prove the outside limits of their continental shelf extend further. Russia is attempting to prove that an underwater ridge, the Lomonosov ridge which runs across the Arctic seabed from Siberia to Greenland, is part of its continental shelf. This would open up a vast area to its control. Other countries are preparing similar claims. The one group who will not have a say are the local indigenous peoples of the region.

Tension has also been high between the US and Canada over the Northwest Passage, the channel that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans running between the North American continent and the Arctic archipelago of Canadian islands. Permanent ice currently prevents commercial shipping but, if the ice recedes as a result of global warming, it would become an important trading route. It would take 7,000 kilometres off the sea journey between Japan and Europe for example. The EU also contests Canada’s sovereignty over it.

In an indication of the level of seriousness of these tensions, Canada has built a military base on Cornwallis Island, a deep-water port near the entrance to the passage, and a fleet of armed patrol ships. This has been backed up with military exercises and rhetoric to match.

These national tensions over the exploitation of the oceans and seabed are not just restricted to the Arctic. The British government is preparing claims to vast areas of the Atlantic Ocean around the Falklands/Malvinas, Ascension Island and Rockall. Claims will be lodged with the UN Commission on the limits of the continental shelf. If the government can prove its claims with technical evidence a new continental shelf outer limit can be extended beyond the 200 mile EEZ, up to 350 miles.

For Argentina, this is re-opening the wounds of the Falklands/Malvinas war of 25 years ago, fought between Britain and Argentina. Thatcher’s main motive in that war was not any concern for the Falkland Islanders themselves, but rather concern for the prestige of British imperialism and for her own political position at home. However, the potential for future mineral exploitation was also a factor. Recent estimates have suggested there are 60 billion barrels of oil under the ocean floor in the region.

Former colonial powers like Britain are quite prepared to use their remaining ‘dependencies’ to grab sea floor thousands of miles away. Similarly, France has made a claim to the Pacific Ocean around New Caledonia.

In a world where there has been increased rivalry between imperialist powers these conflicts over resources play an important part. The rising costs of fuel, instability in oil producing regions such as the Middle East, the diminishing reserves of oil and gas in existing fields, and increasing demand from growing economies such as China, all create a desire by the capitalist powers to search for new sources.

According to The Observer in February 2004, a leaked Pentagon report predicted that "abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies". It quotes the report’s conclusion that "disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life. Once again, warfare would define human life".

The Ministry of Defence in the UK has launched a climate change study to identify "future security threats". Chief scientific advisor, Roy Anderson, said: "The MoD regards climate change as a key strategic factor affecting societal stresses and the responses of communities and nations to those stresses". In the 2003 defence white paper it pointed out that "environmental pressures and increased competition for limited natural resources may cause tensions and conflict – both within and between states. The UK may not remain immune from such developments".

Some, such as Scott Borgerson of the US Coastguard Academy, believe there is a way out of the battle for the Arctic. They cite the 1959 Antarctic treaty when agreement was reached between rivals for control of the South Pole. It bans all military and nuclear activity and was supplemented later with a ban on commercial mining. In reality, however, these rival claims were merely suspended.

The Guardian (17 October) revealed that the British government was also submitting a claim for one million kilometres of Antarctic seabed, based on the disputed British Antarctic Territory on the Antarctic land mass. Argentina and Chile have overlapping claims for that area and the Guardian described the claim as "against the spirit of the Antarctic treaty". Undoubtedly, other countries will follow suit with their own claims.

The Antarctic treaty was signed during the ‘cold war’ period when rivalries between capitalist powers were muted by their common opposition to the Stalinist USSR. If these countries were to reach agreement over the Antarctic, then Russia needed to be in on the treaty too.

Today, after the collapse of Stalinism in Russia, this pressure to work together no longer exists. Agreement will be much harder to reach. Under capitalism these conflicts can never be permanently resolved – national capitalist interests tend to get in the way of international co-operation.

Rather than focus on developing renewable energy sources to combat global warming, there is a scramble for control of the world’s more marginal reserves of fossil fuels. This instability extends to all other kinds of resources. They are fighting for control of the deck of the Titanic while the ship threatens to sink! Capitalism is a continued threat to the world’s environment as well as to the world’s peace and stability.

Steve Score


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