The prospect of Arctic ice melting in about 36 years has brought the prospector out of countries that covet its gas, oil, and new sea lanes. It's a pity then that the US, with a thousand miles of Arctic coastline, may not have a good seat at the table to decide this frontier's future.
In recent weeks, Russia, Canada, Denmark, and the US have all launched various types of Arctic ventures to mark some claim on this frosty region that's twice the size of France. But the US is the only Arctic-bordering nation not party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. That treaty is the legal venue that can help resolve competing claims beyond each nation's offshore economic zone, based on still-unresolved findings of continental shelves.
For the US to be a legitimate player in this race for the Arctic, the Senate must take the long-delayed step of ratifying the 1982 ocean treaty. Happily, hearings on whether to do so start in September.
But any talks between Arctic countries should include ways to protect rather than exploit this liquefying ocean, as experience has shown.
In the mid-20th century, the contest to exploit the Antarctic led to a treaty calling for the southern polar region to be used "in the interests of all mankind." That was in contrast to the 1884-85 Berlin Conference that tried to resolve claims on Africa between imperialist Britain, France, and Germany – only to see a damaging "scramble for Africa." And in Southeast Asia today, oil riches under the Spratly Sea remain a source of high tension between China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other bordering nations.
Would-be Arctic exploiters must recognize an irony in the fact that global warming, caused in part by burning fossil fuels, is helping to open up a race to tap the Arctic's fossil fuels. For humanity's sake, this valuable but polluting resource should be left for the day when other oil wells start to run dry.
By one very rough estimate, the Arctic holds a quarter of the planet's undiscovered petroleum. One practical reason to keep it underground is that technology to drill and transport it in such frigid, watery conditions remains underdeveloped. An Arctic oil spill would not be pretty or short term.
Canada and the US need to set an example for other claimants. The two long time allies can start moves toward protecting the Arctic by resolving their own dispute over the long-sought Northwest Passage. Soon, ships may be able to pass through these now-frozen waters, cutting 2,500 miles off the normal transit from Europe to Asia. Canada claims them as their own. The US and many nations see them as international waters. (US naval subs have long plied the area.)
Meanwhile, Russia, which this month placed a rust-free flag on an underwater ridge near the North Pole to stake a critical claim, needs to end such belligerent antics if it wants to be taken seriously in coming talks on Arctic rights. Such a nationalist move may play well at home before an election, but it's not 21st-century diplomacy.
The Law of the Sea Treaty was designed to resolve claims over ocean territory and mineral resources. So far, it has worked fairly well. The US should join, and in doing so, work to give the Arctic a special status, one that preserves its unique environment.