Held up in legislative limbo in the United States, the Law of the Sea treaty could give other nations the authority to tap into natural resources in the Arctic.
The U.S. may be sitting on the sidelines when it comes to determining the future of the Arctic.
Russia is laying the groundwork to vastly expand its undersea territory to exploit the Arctic's natural resources.
Advocates worry that the fragile region is an environmental time bomb.
As the BP oil spill continues to destroy marine life and ruin livelihoods along the Gulf Coast, conservationists, energy companies and diplomats are preparing for the next big showdown over drilling -- this time in the Arctic.
A Russian icebreaker set sail recently on a scientific voyage to chart its northern underwater boundary, part of its stated plan to claim large hunks of the Arctic for oil, gas and minerals.
Even though the United States is one of the five Arctic nations with a big interest up north (the others are Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Russia and Norway), U.S. diplomats may be left on the sidelines. That's because Congress still hasn't ratified the 28-year-old Law of the Sea Treaty that governs how nations develop resources beyond their boundaries.
"Right now we don't have a seat at the table," a senior State Department official told Discovery News. "There's a real question as to how we can move forward. And there is a risk that we would be left behind."
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey estimated last year that the Arctic holds nearly a third of the planet's natural gas reserves and 13 percent of the remaining oil. As the polar ice cap disappears (one-quarter of the ice cover has melted since 1978), companies like Shell, Exxon and BP have found it easier to drill for petroleum riches. And that doesn't include vast stocks of Arctic fish, timber and even diamonds.
Advocates now worry that the frozen region's fragile wildlife, extreme weather and lack of clean-up resources make it an environmental time bomb.
"We need a time-out in the Arctic," said Thomas McCann of the Oceans Conservancy. "We need to understand the environmental impacts before we start putting drillbits in the water. If we went in there with increased industrial uses, the damage could be incredible."
In the wake of the Gulf oil spill, the Obama administration and the Canadian government stopped all new Arctic oil leases. But Russia's minister of Natural Resources, Yuri Trutnev, said last Friday that he opposes any tougher offshore drilling rules.
Experts say that Russia is laying the groundwork to vastly expand its undersea territory, which is allowed under the Law of the Sea treaty if it can show that its continental shelf extends beyond its 200-mile boundary.
The 1982 treaty replaced the 17th-century "freedom of seas" concept and has been signed by 158 countries.
President Ronald Reagan refused to sign, saying it would cede too much power to the United Nations. Reagan's concerns were addressed by amendments in 1994. The Senate Foreign Relations committee twice approved the treaty in 2004 and 2007. But a small group of Republican senators, who say they don't want the U.S. to be part of a multi-national treaty, have kept it from getting a final vote.
Congressional sources say that because of elections and other issues, the window is closing for legislative action on the treaty this year.
Still, U.S. scientists are continuing to map the seafloor with the hope that one day the treaty will pass.
NASA launched its own Arctic cruise last week out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Scientists on the five-week journey will sample physical and biological characteristics of the Arctic Ocean -- from sea ice optical properties to the carbon uptake abilities of phytoplankton. It's all to measure how fast climate change is affecting the region.