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As a land thaws, so do Greenland's aspirations for independence

As global warming makes Greenland's mineral wealth more accessible, talk of independence from Denmark is also heating up.

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 16, 2007

NUUK, Greenland

Judging by flags alone, you'd never guess that Nuuk is part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

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All around this humble capital – population 15,000 – one sees the fluttering Greenlandic flag. The Danish one, by contrast, is rarely seen at all. But if some in this largely autonomous Danish territory have their way, it will one day fly in front of a future Danish embassy here.

For 30 years, Greenland's 56,000 people have been pushing for greater control over their own affairs. Despite their best efforts, it was assumed that poor, remote Greenland would remain tied to Denmark indefinitely.

But with the recent surge in global oil and mineral prices – and melting ice on land and sea improving access to potential reserves of both – the prospects for Greenland's independence have never looked better.

"If Greenland becomes economically self-sufficient, then independence becomes a practical possibility," says Aleqa Hammond, minister for finance and foreign affairs in Greenland's home-rule government, which already controls most of the island's affairs. "We know that we have gold and diamonds and oil and great masses of the cleanest water in the world … It may be closer than we think."

Greenland is in the midst of renegotiating its relationship with Denmark, which has ruled the island since 1721. Talks were supposed to conclude last month, but have stalled on questions over ownership of the island's oil and mineral wealth. Denmark wants to maintain the current arrangement, by which they will receive half of any royalties; Greenland wants a greater share.

"We always had this idea that we had closets of resources of every kind, but with the rise in prices, it has affected the negotiations," says Kuupik Kleist, one of two Greenlandic representatives to the Danish parliament, who is heading the resource negotiations. "On the Danish side, they have gone from being almost indifferent about the future of Greenland to being very, very much focused on not giving up Danish rights on mineral resources."

In Denmark, which provides half of Greenland's domestic budget and cradle-to-grave social guarantees, many argue that it would be unreasonable for Danish taxpayers to continue forking over a grant of 3.2 billion Danish krones ($600 million) each year if the island struck it rich. "Greenland can't both earn a bundle on oil and keep its block grant," Danish negotiator Frank Jensen told journalists recently.

Greenland has been granting exploration permits, and Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and other energy giants are looking for oil off the western coast. Although there are no proven sources, the US Geological Survey estimates there are 31.4 billion barrels of oil off the northeast coast alone. In summer, the island's helicopters were all booked by diamond prospectors.

"It's inconceivable that a country as large as Greenland wouldn't be rich in natural resources," says Minik Rosing, a Greenland-born geologist at the University of Copenhagen, who doesn't share the belief that finding oil will serve the cause of independence.