Arctic expedition to prove territory claim

Environmentalists are alarmed by a research expedition that hopes to expand Denmark’s claim to the Arctic sea floor and the lucrative oil deposits it may be hiding

An icebreaker is carrying researchers toward the north pole to make measurements they hope will support Denmark’s claim to even more of the resource-rich arctic seafloor.

Currently, the territory of the six nations bordering the Arctic Sea (Denmark, Canada, Russia, Norway, USA and Iceland) extends 200 nautical miles into the sea, an area which makes up their exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

But states can extend their rights over the sea floor to a distance of 350 nautical miles from their shore if they can demonstrate that their continental shelf extends beyond the 200 nautical mile EEZ.

This is what Danish researchers hope to prove, with the expedition onboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden, by gathering a range of detailed information about the seafloor north of Greenland.

Denmark has until 2014 to submit its claims for extending its continental shelf, or ten years from its 2004 ratification of the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that outlined the rights of states to extend their seafloor territory, which was drafted by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

Denmark hopes to extend its seafloor claim out from the north of Greenland toward the North Pole along the submersed Lomonosov Ridge. As the name of the expedition (LOMROG III) suggests, it is the third time that Danish researchers have headed toward the ridge aboard Oden to gather detailed data and to ascertain whether it can be argued that it constitutes an extension of Greenland’s continental shelf.

Gathering the data is no easy task, however, and breaking ice that can be several meters thick presents both technical and economic challenges – at full steam the ice breaker can use 250,000 kroner of fuel a day.

Christian Marcussen, head of the Danish national geological institute, GEUS, who is leading the expedition, is confident about the outcome of the research.

“We have holes in our data that we need to fill before we submit our claim,” Marcussen told Berlingske newspaper. “We feel pretty sure that our argument is correct and that Denmark can make the claim outside the 200 nautical mile limit.”

Denmark is not alone in attempting to assert greater claim over the Arctic sea floor. Russia has already made a claim to the CLCS arguing that the Lomonosov ridge is an extension of its own continental shelf. Norway and Canada have also made claims while the US has yet to ratify UNCLOS.

LOMROG III is part of the 340 million kroner state-funded Continental Shelf Project that has identified a further four areas where Denmark could extend its sea floor rights out from the continental shelves of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Oil explorations are already underway in Greenland’s waters and it is thought that large undiscovered deposits of oil and gas could be found elsewhere beneath the arctic sea floor – and the more seafloor there is to explore, the greater the chance of finding a commercially viable deposit.

But not everyone is pleased with the attempts by Arctic nations to seek out underground riches. Greenpeace is especially distressed by oil activities in the Arctic and has already launched aggressive and disruptive actions against oil rigs in Greenland’s waters to draw attention to the issue.

Oil companies have already been chastised for releasing chemicals into arctic waters that are rich in marine life. According to Jon Burgwald from Greenpeace, the area surrounding the North Pole should remain in the hands of the international community instead of an oil exploration site.

“If Denmark has a claim to the North Pole they must use it to place pressure on the other arctic countries to seek a common solution in which the area around the north pole will continue to belong to everyone as an unspoiled area of natural beauty for the whole world,” Burgwald wrote in a press release.

Denmark remains conflicted about the Arctic. Despite heavily endorsing renewable energy and carbon reduction during its recent stint as EU president, its budget is heavily dependent on the billions of kroner in revenue derived from taxes on North Sea oil.

So while it promotes itself as a country that is turning its back on fossil fuels, the question is whether Denmark would still capitalise on a major oil discovery in the Arctic that would be a boon to the state's purse and replace the revenue that will be lost after its North Sea oil dries up.