Polar Notes

Mar 2016

Russia expands its claim to the Arctic Continental Shelf

At the United Nations last month, Sergey Donskoy, the Russian Minister for Natural Resources and the Environment, formally presented Russia’s application to expand the area of its Arctic continental shelf. The application, initially submitted in August 2015, covers a total underwater area of approximately 1.2 million km2, including parts of the Lomonosov Ridge and the symbolic North Pole. Significantly, from an economic perspective, it is estimated that the area contains nearly 5 billion metric tons of standard fuel.

Over the past decade, attempts by Norway, Canada, Russia and Denmark to stake claims to large areas of the Arctic Ocean seabed have been met with accusations that they are racing to carve up the Arctic amongst themselves. However, all of their claims to date have a legal basis in international law, particularly the law of the sea.

In short, under the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) and customary international law of the sea, coastal states possess exclusive sovereign rights to access and control the seabed and subsoil up to a distance of 200 nautical miles (essentially within its Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ).  

If, however, a state can prove that the area of seabed and subsoil is a natural prolongation of its continental shelf which goes beyond 200nm, that state can extend the outer limit of its continental shelf by up to a distance of 350nm from its territorial baselines, or 100nm from the 2,500 metre isobath
(whichever is greater). All claims are reviewed by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a panel of 21 scientific experts that can accept, modify or reject a claim.

Russia first submitted an application to extend its Arctic continental shelf in 2001, but it was rejected by the CLCS on the basis that there was insufficient scientific evidence to support the claim. In the years since, Russia has undertaken nine geological and geophysical expeditions in the central Arctic basin in order to produce further scientific data to support a revised claim.  

If the scientific evidence is accepted by the CLCS, it will strengthen Russia’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the other Arctic coastal states. Ultimately, the CLCS is only able to advise as to the scientific validity of any claim. In areas where there are overlapping claims, as in the case of the North Pole and parts of the Lomonosov Ridge, which are also claimed by Denmark (in December 2014), final delimitation of borders on the seabed depends on international agreement.  

By adhering to the rules set out under UNCLOS and the law of the sea, far from signifying a ‘race’ to carve up the Arctic, the littoral states are playing a long game. It is anticipated that Russia’s application alone will take three to five years to assess, possibly longer, due to the backlog of cases that the CLCS has to review.  

Issue to watch

Russia’s application to the CLCS shows it has a huge amount to gain from upholding UNCLOS and the law of the sea in the Arctic. It is not secret that Russia regards its Arctic zone as the strategic resource base which will power its economy for the next century. Yet herein also lies a risk. Should Russia’s application be rejected for a second time, it might just abandon the process and instead maintain a de facto claim over those parts it regards to be within the Russian Arctic (in outright violation of UNCLOS). Another issue is that Canada will also make a submission to the CLCS soon, a move which is expected to trigger a potentially heated debate with both Russia and Denmark over who owns the North Pole.

Delineation of the extended continental shelf
Map of Maritime Jurisdictions and Boundaries in the Arctic

Detailed notes on this map are available from the Durham International Boundaries Research Unit: https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/ibru/resources/Arcticmap04-08-15.pdf

Details of Russia’s submission are available from the UN: http://www.un.org/depts/los/clcs_new/submissions_files/submission_rus_rev1.htm