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Veteran explorer stakes Russia's claim over the Arctic

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) applauds after he decorated Russian State Duma member Artur Chilingarov, the leader of the 2007 Arctic
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) applauds after he decorated Russian State Duma member Artur Chilingarov, the leader of the 2007 Arctic

By Gabriela Baczynska

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian polar explorer Artur Chilingarov made his name in the Soviet Union with a daring rescue of an ice-bound ship, then won international fame for planting Russia's flag under the ice cap, angering governments with rival claims over the Arctic.

Now at the age of 73, rather than folding away his maps, he is spearheading President Vladimir Putin's diplomatic push to secure more of the mineral-rich region.

"We don't want anything that belongs to anybody else, but if we prove it's ours, give it to us," a cigar-puffing Chilingarov told Reuters in an interview in his Moscow office dominated by a wall map of the Arctic seabed's topography.

On his desk stood a 10-cm (four-inch) high replica of the titanium Russian tricolor that he planted at the North Pole during his 2007 dive.

Huge reserves of Arctic oil and natural gas are expected to become more accessible as climate change melts the ice and technology advances.

For Putin, the race for the Arctic's natural wealth is a matter of national and personal pride at the start of his six-year, third term as president, and would be a victory from which he could reap political dividends.

Competition is fierce, with Norway, the United States, Canada and Denmark also seeking to secure their interests in the Arctic and where international energy majors such as ConocoPhillips and Statoil hope to succeed with potentially lucrative offshore projects.

After the failure of a first attempt to secure an additional 1.2 million square km (463,000 square miles) of the Arctic shelf, Russia intends to present more evidence to support its claim to the United Nations by the end of this year.

"Our economy today is largely based on what was developed in the Arctic regions - oil, gas, diamonds, gold, apatites - from Norilsk to Chukotka, thanks to the Soviet Union's policies of exploring and producing there," Chilingarov said.

"But back then we did not go into the sea. Resources are not endless and our task now is to leave future generations the same chances of economic stability as the Soviet Union left us."

NEW STRATEGY

The map on Chilingarov's wall was the result of 30 years of work by Soviet and then Russian scientists and was central to Moscow's first attempt in 2001 to win U.N. recognition that its Arctic shelf extends up to the North Pole.

Russia says an underwater mountain range known as the Lomonosov Ridge, which stretches across the Arctic Sea, is part of its own Eurasian landmass.

But the U.N. was not convinced and asked for more research to back the claim, rejected by Canada and Denmark, which say the formation is a geographical extension of their own land.

Chilingarov said the presentation of new evidence to back up Russia's claim was now a priority for the Kremlin.

"This is a very important task supported by the president. The aim is to do it by the end of this year," said the explorer. "We spare no efforts on expeditions to prove that Russia sits on Arctic resources ... We are very serious, very serious about this."

Russia puts its total shelf oil and gas reserves, from the Arctic to the Caspian Sea, at 100 billion tonnes of oil equivalent - enough to power the world for more than 20 years.

A new strategy for the Arctic, approved by Putin this month, underlines the importance of tapping more energy resources in a country whose $2.1 trillion economy is overly reliant on exports of energy resources.

Oil and gas sales now account for around half of Russia's budget revenues and commodities make up some 90 percent of Russian exports.

The cost of developing any new energy fields will be great.

Russia's flagship gas project on the Arctic shelf, the Gazprom-controlled Shtokman, is already on hold because of cost overruns after years of failed attempts to advance work at the field holding nearly 4 trillion cubic meters of gas.

Other countries, meanwhile, are pressing their own claims. A Danish expedition last year also collected data to support its claim to a vast tract in the Arctic including the North Pole.

RICH REWARDS

The rewards for the winners are potentially huge, with the U.S. Geological Survey estimating that 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of oil is in the Arctic.

Several companies, including Russia's Rosneft, Norway's Statoil and U.S.-based Exxon Mobil are already getting ready to drill in areas of melting sea ice, despite the risks, technological difficulties and costs.

After Chilingarov's North Pole dive in 2007, he was officially declared a hero of Russia, an award he added to the title of hero of the Soviet Union that he had won for the 1980s rescue operation, and his face still adorns postage stamps.

He is one of only four people to have been awarded both titles, and one of only two still alive.

"This is not the end of my expedition activity, but this was the pinnacle of it," Chilingarov said of the 2007 dive.

There is also an environmental challenge to face. Many environmental groups say the rush for the Arctic's natural resources risks destroying its fragile ecosystems, already under threat from climate change, as there are no adequate impact studies or emergency plans in case of a leak.

Last August, Greenpeace activists scaled Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya oil rig - Russia's first offshore oil development in the Arctic - to protest against drilling there and draw attention to the destruction of the area.

"As a polar explorer, obviously, I am for leaving the Arctic untouched. As a politician, I understand that Russia lives on its natural resources and should go on developing them," said Chilingarov.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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