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Tensions around North Pole hydrocarbons raise the specter of new (bitter) Cold War.

"It's all academic," Russian officialdom claims about the two submersibles launched from the scientific explorer vessel "Academician Fedorov," reaching the North Pole close to 14,000 feet below the frozen icecap surface. The crew of the first mini-sub planted a Russian flag (made of truly all-weather proof Titanium), while the second one carried an Australian and a Swedish national, giving the expedition an international flavor.

Academic and international my foot! It was a geostrategic act designed to bolster Russia's already known claim to about 1.2 million square kilometers of oceanic shelf as a simple extension of its national territory (most of which global warming could indeed make into dry land in a century or so).

That there is a Persian Gulf-sized wealth of oil and natural gas in permafrost within the Arctic Circle has not been lost on other countries in the general neighborhood. In particular, Denmark maintains that what the Russians call "Lomonosov Ridge" really belongs to Greenland, one of its administrative divisions. The United States, Canada, and Norway also have legally founded claims that conflict with Russian pretensions.

The specter of a new Cold War is beginning to haunt the world. According to the German weekly Der Spiegel (August 2, 2007), Russian television showed an airplane flying over the "Academician Fedorov," dubbing it a NATO reconnaissance operation. The Russians question the purpose of British submarines in the area and plan strategic bombing exercises in the polar region later this month. Le Monde, a leading French daily, puts the 4.8-billion euro naval buildup in Canada, aimed explicitly at "defending its arctic territorial sovereignty," in the broad context of sharpening competition over polar energy reserves (August 2, 2007). Related to the emerging dispute, no doubt, Russia plans a significant expansion of its naval forces, reportedly wanting to become second only to the United States in maritime power in just two decades.

This incipient strong arm wrangling, which is expected to intensify as oil prices continue their secular upward trend, is not only sinister but also breathtakingly stupid. The technological problems of drafting arctic oil and gas into human service have not even been solved, the ecological fallout of this course of action hardly addressed, but already huge sums of money are committed for grabbing control and potential revenues. If all the resources thrown away in the name of oil security (e.g., "Iraq" and Middle Eastern arms race) and about to sink among the floating icebergs of the Arctic Ocean were used to develop alternative energy sources...

Editorial Notes: Also by economist Peter Pogany on Energy Bulletin: Global efforts to substitute for oil: Learning by doing ourselves in

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