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It may seem like frozen waste, but the Arctic is very valuable – and highly coveted. /NASA Science Visualization Studio/Cover images via VCG

It may seem like frozen waste, but the Arctic is very valuable – and highly coveted. /NASA Science Visualization Studio/Cover images via VCG

The European Court of Human Rights is considering the Norwegian government’s request to dismiss a case brought by activists seeking to stop oil exploration in the Arctic.

While environmental protesters hope for a change of luck – they’ve already lost the argument in three national courts, including Norway’s oldest – the longest-running dispute is likely to remain between various sovereign nations over who owns mining rights under the North Pole.

What’s under the Arctic?

The Arctic Circle encompasses about 20 million square kilometers, or about 4% of the Earth’s surface. Much of this is frozen ocean, which means there are (unlike Antarctica) no international treaties banning economic development, so it’s what lies underneath that attracts interest . A 2009 report by the US Geological Survey estimated that there could be up to 160 million barrels of oil and up to 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas.

Who claims it?

The nations claiming the territory are those whose lands extend furthest north to the border of the Arctic Ocean – so from the Greenwich meridian (through London) eastwards is Norway , Russia, the United States, Canada and Denmark (via Greenland).

These countries can (and do) establish Exclusive Economic Zones, similar to the Fishing Rights Zones that caused so much contention during the ‘Cod Wars’ between the UK and Iceland in the 1960s and 1970s. , 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from their shores. Within these zones, countries can extract natural resources.

These claims can be seen on the map produced by IBRU, the Center for Border Research at Durham University in the UK (see the IBRU site for detailed briefing notes). Counterclockwise from the bottom, Norway’s orange zone adjoins Russia’s yellow, which in turn gives way to the United States’ turquoise zone, then Canada’s green and pink from Denmark.

But what is this multicolored piece in the middle?

Well, the Arctic Ocean is mostly over 400 nautical miles wide, which would leave much of it in the central ocean if not for the existence of a 1,700 kilometer undersea mountain range called the Lomonosov Ridge, passing directly under the North Pole. and effectively divide the Arctic Ocean into two halves.

How does the Lomonosov crest change things?

It wasn’t even discovered until 1948 – by Soviet researchers, which is why it was named after a pioneering Russian geologist – but is now at the center of a three-way ownership battle between the countries that claim it as extensions of their continental shelves. Denmark says it is part of Greenland, Russia insists it is an extension of a Siberian archipelago and Canada claims it as an extension of Ellesmere Island.

Competing claims (or “submissions”) for the Central Arctic region can be seen on the IBRU map below. Because each country claims a different area of ​​the ridge, there are different areas contested by Denmark and Russia (pink and yellow) and by Canada and Russia (green and yellow). The section bounded by the bold blue line in the middle is claimed by the three countries.

The extremely delicate task of mediating this enormously lucrative and ecologically sensitive dispute fell to the United Nations, with each country making its competing claims (and sometimes modifying them, with Russia submitting multiple iterations of its claim). Whoever ultimately succeeds could claim around 142 million square kilometers of territory on top of the planet.

Who is already active in the region?

Norway is already Western Europe’s largest oil and gas producer, with daily production equivalent to around four million barrels of oil. It first developed fields in the North Sea, before expanding north into the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea.

Under President Donald Trump, the US government wanted to open 82% of the 93,000 square kilometer National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska to oil and gas drilling, although Joe Biden recently reduced that percentage to the Obama administration level by 52%.

Russian oil companies have also been drilling in the Arctic for a decade. In 2007, Russian explorers planted a titanium national flag on Lomonosov Ridge at the North Pole.

Climate change – caused in large part by the use of fossil fuels, the exploitation of which would help prolong – has contributed to the expansion by melting more Arctic ice, making exploration and drilling easier. And with growing uncertainty over fuel, the battle at the top of the planet is likely to be of vital importance in the decades to come.

So what about the Norwegian court case?

Which brings us back to the court case trying to stop Norwegian oil exploration – and the government’s determination to call it off.

The six plaintiffs, all in their 20s, are backed by Greenpeace and Young Friends of the Earth, repeating a recent trend of individual lawsuits against corporations and governments. In a recent case, Dutch activists forced Shell to accelerate emissions cuts.

In its submission to the ECHR, the Norwegian Attorney General’s Office cited the Ukrainian crisis and the resulting uncertainty over Russian fuel supplies as reasons for not ceasing Arctic activities, underlining the role of Norway as a stable and predictable energy supplier to Europe in the aftermath of the Ukrainian War and “Russian instrumentalisation of energy” – an argument rejected by environmentalists.

“The 2022 war does not legitimize the oil decisions made in 2016, nor that we need new production for several decades to come,” said Frode Pleym, the boss of Greenpeace Norge.