A New Wild West: Opening the Northwest Passage

By Moon, Sarah | Harvard International Review, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

A New Wild West: Opening the Northwest Passage


Moon, Sarah, Harvard International Review


As climate change accelerates, the geography of the Arctic is rapidly changing. Of late, there has been much discussion about new potential that is being opened up in the North, and countries are stepping forward to capitalize on it. The window of opportunity is opening quickly, as temperatures are rising faster in this region than anywhere else in the world. The prospects of particular interest to countries in the vicinity are the potential new shipping routes and fossil fuels, yet it still remains to be seen who is going to lay claim to this highly-demanded area. The Law of the Sea determines nations' abilities to extract oil and gas beyond a 200-mile exclusive economic zone originating at their borders. For a country to have a legitimate claim to resources, it must demonstrate that the area in question lies on its continental slope.

For countries like Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States, this is an extremely exciting opportunity. The US Geological Survey recently estimated that the Arctic seabed holds 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas. As natural resources become increasingly scarce, the Arctic may prove to be one of the last great opportunities for drilling.

However, environmental groups are against oil drilling in the Arctic because of the threat it poses to natural oceanic habitats, both directly, through the extraction process, and indirectly, through the potential for oil spills. Still, groups like the Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature support the treaty, as they believe that it provides valuable clarity and negotiating space to the international community. Given the United States' all too recent experience with offshore drilling (the British Petroleum oil spill of 2010), the US government takes this risk seriously. This is part of the reason why the ratification process for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea saw such slow progress.

Additionally, the once-mythical Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans appeared in the summer months of 2007. As temperatures continue to rise and the ice continues to melt, the waterway is opening up for longer periods of time. Some are even predicting that the Arctic will be completely free of ice during the summer of 2030. On this, too, there is great contention between countries over who will gain access to the shipping lanes. …

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