This week, the U.S. Geological Survey released a report estimating that the Arctic Circle contains 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — nearly two-thirds the proved gas reserves of the entire Middle East — and 90 billion barrels of oil. Unfortunately, the United States is far behind Russia in moving to extract these resources. Heritage senior research fellow Dr. Ariel Cohen wrote almost a year ago:

By planting the Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole and claiming a sector of the Continental Shelf the size of Western Europe, Moscow generated a new source of international tension, seemingly out of the blue.

In 2001 Russia filed a claim to expand the continental shelf with the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf under the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), to which it is a party. However, in 2002 the commission declared it neither accepts nor rejects the Russian claim, and demanded more study. Russia plans to resubmit the claim, and expects to get the answer by 2010.

Russia’s claims are literally on thin ice. Moscow is extending its claim to the Arctic Ocean seabed based on its control of the Lomonosov Ridge and the Mendeleev Ridge, two underwater geological structures that jut into the ocean from the Russian continental shelf. However, it looks like the ridges do not extend far enough to justify Moscow’s claims beyond its 200-mile economic zone, while other countries also claim control of the same area.

To stop the expansion, the U.S. should encourage its friends and allies — Canada, Denmark and Norway — to pursue their claims in the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. While the United Sates has not ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), other Arctic countries, including Norway and Denmark, have filed their own claims with the Commission, opposing Russian demands.

Russia’s decision to take an aggressive stand has left the U.S., Canada and the Nordic countries little choice but to design a cooperative High North strategy, and invite other friendly countries, such as Great Britain, to expend the necessary means to build up the Western presence in the Arctic. This will probably have to include a fleet of modern icebreakers, submersibles, geophysics/seismic vessels, and polar aircraft.