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Polar summit kicks off in Washington

Latest update : 2009-04-06

The first meeting devoted to the future of the two Poles opens on Monday in Washington. Although not on the official programme, the potential riches of the continental shelf around the North Pole are expected to be at the centre of debates.

AFP - Territorial claims targeting riches hidden at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and the preservation of Antarctica's pristine environment will top the agenda of the first meeting on the future of the North and South Poles that opens here Monday.

The State Department said the meeting, to be hosted by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will focus on the use of both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Clinton will preside over the first joint session of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) and the Arctic Council on April 6 in Baltimore, Maryland, according to a press release from the State Department.

The joint meeting brings "together the two most important bodies involved with diplomacy at the Poles," the statement said.

The ATCM meeting comes on the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in Washington.

It "will note its historic significance as the first modern multilateral arms control treaty," which stipulates that Antarctica be used "for peaceful purposes only and guarantees freedom of scientific investigation."

Although the official agenda focuses on peaceful activities in Antarctica as well as freedom of scientific research, participants are likely to focus on rich oil and gas deposits in the continental shelf around the North Pole.

Now that global warming has opened new navigation routes in the area, these deposits have sparked fierce competition among nations surrounding the Arctic, according to French ambassador for international negotiations Michel Rocard.

The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds about 90 billion barrels of oil and even bigger deposits of gas.

These resources constitute 13 percent of the world's untapped reserves of oil and 30 percent of reserves of natural gas.

The riches are being disputed by the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark, whose island of Greenland could become independent.

A Russian submarine symbolically planted a flag on the sea bed at the North Pole in 2007 and Moscow recently announced plans to militarize its part of the Arctic in order to protect its interests there.

Canada meanwhile is trying to extend its control over Arctic waters to 200 nautical miles.

Ottawa has been consistently reaffirming its sovereignty over the region, in particular the North-West Passage and its thousands of uninhabited islands. Due to melting ice, the passage could become an important future maritime route linking Asia to Europe.

The United States and other countries consider it an international waterway.

In order to protect the environment, France has proposed improving governance over the region. Priorities would include international control over fishing rights, says to Rocard.

During the ATCM meeting, US delegates propose to "limit the size of vessels that can land passengers in Antarctica and to establish higher standards for the use of lifeboats aboard tourist vessels that visit Antarctica," the State Department statement said.

"US participation in International Polar Year included research conducted by a range of federal agencies," it added.

These include the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the US Geological Survey, it said.

Date created : 2009-04-06