It can begin leading by ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. While no nation currently “owns” the North Pole, the Law of the Sea treaty affords each of the five countries that surround it an exclusive economic zone out to 200 nautical miles from shore. The natural resources within a nation’s zone belong to that nation alone.
Parties to the treaty can also lay claim to an extended area out to 350 nautical miles. If the US Senate were to ratify the treaty – and the US is the only Arctic nation that has not ratified – America could lay claim to an area of the Arctic twice the size of California. Ownership in the Arctic is becoming increasingly important as more and more nations look to the region to meet their energy and economic needs, and as a viable shipping route.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the minimum sea-ice extent of the Arctic polar ice cap reached a record low last year – half what it was in the 1979-2000 period. That reduced coverage will allow for increased circumpolar maritime traffic via sea lanes that are open for longer periods of time. Shipping cargo from Europe to Asia via the Arctic can shave thousands of miles, multiple days, and enormous expenses from the traditional route through the Suez Canal.
Russia has already used the Arctic route for supertanker travel to China. Experts say a tanker leaving Murmansk in Russia needs only 22 days to get to Shanghai, compared to the 42 days it would take via the Suez Canal. The route can also save nearly $1 million in fuel costs. Looked at from an environmental perspective, that is 18 fewer days of fuel consumption and emissions as a result of the Arctic shipping route.
Less sea-ice also means greater access to natural resources that were previously covered by the polar cap. The Arctic contains an estimated 90 billion barrels and 1,700 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered oil and natural gas. Of that, 30 billion barrels of oil and 221 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are estimated to lie in the Alaska Arctic Outer Continental Shelf. High concentrations of critical minerals, such as rare earth elements, are also likely to be found.