Which nations have a valid claim to the mineral and energy resources of the Arctic? American administrations have pushed that question to the back burner, but its resolution is growing more urgent.
A quarter of the world's hydrocarbons probably lie under the Arctic Ocean and northern ice cap. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey showed the Arctic's resources include about 90 billion barrels of oil and 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
With the melting of the polar ice cap, the Arctic's resources are rapidly becoming more accessible. A chunk of Greenland as big as New York's Manhattan Island broke off in August.
Russia is leading in the race to stake a claim and resolve who has a right to drill where. It has developed mini-submarines and nuclear-powered ice-breaking ships that are useful in exploiting the Arctic's resources. In 2007, it planted its flag in the Arctic Ocean floor at the North Pole, although that does not constitute an internationally recognized claim.
Last week, Russia convened a high-level conference attended by all the countries bordering the Arctic, including Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the United States.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was an official delegate, suggesting his country's deep interest in the issue. By contrast, the American delegation was fairly low-ranking.
One of the major issues to be addressed is the status of the subsea mountain ranges in the region. A U.N. commission determines which extensions of continental shelves in the region are recognized.
The subject generally falls under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which took effect in 1994. About 160 countries have ratified the convention, not including the United States.
Given the controversy surrounding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this year, you'd think the Obama Administration would be paying close attention to the Arctic's resources. It isn't.
The first step would be to ratify the Law of the Sea convention.
A second step would be to send more senior-level representatives to meetings such as last week's Moscow conference.
As of now, though, the United States is not even playing catch-up on this vital issue.