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Russia lays claim to billions of tons of Arctic oil and gas

Vladimir Putin confirms application to extend shelf complete as military bolsters presence in region

Russia is to renew its claim to a huge swathe of the Arctic in the hope it can secure the rights to billions of tons of oil and gas.

Moscow has long seen the seabed off its northern coastline as a mine of valuable hydrocarbons and is keen to fend off rival bids for control over the region’s resources.

Sergei Donskoy, minister for natural resources, said Russia had completed research on its submission to the UN, under which it hopes to gain an extra 1.2 million square km (460,000 square miles).

“That is a big increase to the country's territory, that's why we call this application an application for the future – an application for the future sustainable development of our country," said Mr Donskoy after greeting scientists returning home this week from the Arctic to St Petersburg on the Akademik Fedorov research ship.

Mr Donskoy said Russia’s application – which could net it at least five billion tons of hitherto unexploited oil and gas reserves - would be submitted to the UN in the spring.

The announcement came as the Kremlin increases its military presence in the Far North. Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday that it was going to build 13 new military airfields and 10 radar stations in the Arctic in case of “unwelcome guests”.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, told his Security Council in April that the Arctic was “a sphere of our special interest”.

Under the UN convention on the law of the sea, the five states with territory inside the Arctic Circle - Canada, Norway, Russia, the US, and Denmark, via its control of Greenland - have economic rights over a 200-mile zone around the north of their coastline.

However, the convention is open to appeal, and several countries are disputing the limits of the zone.

Russia believes its shelf is directly linked to the Lomonosov ridge, an underwater mountain crest that runs 1,240 miles across the polar region. A similar claim is being made about the Mendeleyev ridge, which also strikes out from Siberia toward the North Pole.

Moscow submitted research findings to the UN in 2001 to the effect that the ridges were a “natural prolongation” of Russia, but they were rejected, and it has been gathering data for a new application ever since.

In 2007, Russian scientists tried to beef up their claims by diving to the seabed 4,600 yards under the North Pole and planting a titanium Russian flag. That prompted ridicule from some quarters, with Peter MacKay, Canada’s then foreign minister, comparing it to a 15th century colonial land-grab.

Mr Donskoy reported on Russia’s new submission to Vladimir Putin during a televised government meeting at the Russian president's Novo-Ogarevo estate outside Moscow on Wednesday.

He said geologists and other experts on the Akademik Fedorov had conducted seismic exploration of the sea bed.

Mr Putin said: “Our scientific expeditions with the aim of renewing our application to expand Russian territory by more than one million square kilometres are complete.”

Canada also calls the Lomonosov ridge its own and is expected to lay claim to the North Pole itself in a forthcoming application to the UN. Ottawa sent two icebreakers to map a portion of the sea bed around the ridge in August. Denmark thinks the ridge is part of Greenland.

The UN only verifies scientific data and the Arctic countries will be obliged themselves to reach agreements on dividing territory.

Tom Parfitt
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