By Kim McLaughlin
ILULISSAT, Greenland (Reuters) - Senior officials from five Arctic countries met in Greenland on Tuesday to discuss sovereignty over the Arctic Ocean, which could hold up to one-quarter of the world's undiscovered oil reserves.
Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States are squabbling over huge tracts of the Arctic seabed and Denmark has called them together for talks in its self-governing province to avert a free-for-all for the region's natural resources.
"We need to send a common political signal to both our own populations and the rest of the world that the five coastal states will address the opportunities and challenges in a responsible manner", Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller told reporters.
"Climate change is a fact of the Arctic. The ice is melting and transport routes and natural resources which used to be inaccessible are opening up," Moller said.
Moller and Greenland Premier Hans Enoksen will meet the Norwegian and Russian foreign ministers, Jonas Gahr Stoere and Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Canadian Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn at the two-day conference in the town of Ilulissat.
Denmark has urged all involved to abide by United Nations rules on territorial claims and hopes to sign a declaration that the United Nations would rule on any disputes.
Environmental groups have criticized the scramble for the Arctic, saying it will damage unique animal habitats, and have called for a treaty similar to that regulating the Antarctic, which bans military activity and mineral mining.
The five nations plan to discuss not only territorial claims, but also cooperation over accidents, maritime security and oil spills. Moller said that as the ice sheet shrinks, icebergs will form and pose serious threats to shipping.
RUSSIAN SEABED FLAG
Russia angered other Arctic countries last year by planting a flag on the seabed under the North Pole in a headline-grabbing gesture that some criticized as a stunt.
Lavrov on Tuesday compared the incident to the U.S. lunar landings in the 1960's and 1970's.
"There is no claim for any territory. There couldn't be, because there is the Law of the Sea Convention and there are mechanisms created to implement this convention," he told reporters in Copenhagen before leaving for Greenland.
"It's important that the five Arctic nations send a clear-cut signal that they do want and are willing to cooperate on the basis of international law. This basis is solid and is sufficient to resolve all the issues that exist in the region," he said.
Countries around the Arctic Ocean are rushing to stake claims on the Polar Basin seabed and its oil and gas reserves, made more tempting by rising energy prices, and have taken their arguments to the United Nations.
Resolving territorial disputes in the Arctic has gained urgency because scientists believe rising temperatures could leave most of the Arctic ice-free in summer months in a few decades' time.
This would improve drilling access and open up the Northwest Passage, a route through the Arctic Ocean linking the Atlantic and Pacific that would reduce the sea journey from New York to Singapore by thousands of miles.
Under the 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, coastal states own the seabed beyond existing 200 nautical mile zones if it is part of a continental shelf of shallower waters.
While the rules aim to fix shelves' outer limits on a clear geological basis, they have created a tangle of overlapping Arctic claims.
(Additional reporting by Gelu Sulugiuc in Copenhagen)
(Editing by Tim Pearce)