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International law gives a nation about 12 miles of territorial waters and up to 200 miles of an economic exclusionary zone where a nation can claim seabed resources.

But the region may not turn out be as lucrative as the Arctic countries’ finance ministries hope.

Real money is new shipping

California-based Russia analyst Anatoly Karlin, who runs the Arctic Progress website, said oil from the far north is not the mother lode that could transform the world market.

“One recent U.S. Geological Survey put production costs of Arctic oil at $100 per barrel,” he said.

The current price per barrel is about $92.

“They estimated 2.5 billion barrels could be extracted, which isn’t huge when you consider the U.S. oil reserves are 20 billion barrels and Saudi Arabia claims to have 260 billion barrels.”

Mr. Karlin said the real money is in new shipping routes.

“The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and as the ice melts, then energy extraction will become more profitable,” he said. “But in the short term, shipping will be more significant. It could grow tenfold in the next decade.”

Mr. Dodds said even Arctic shipping is not as simple as some believe.

“It’s widely believed the Arctic Ocean will, in the summer, become more ice-free and this will lead to improved accessibility, particularly in the Russian Arctic — though the Canadian Arctic may become more clogged due to local conditions,” he said.

“I genuinely don’t think the Arctic is going to become a northern Mediterranean in terms of shipping volume.”

He added that the political power of the Arctic lies in its remoteness: “The vast majority of people are never going to visit these places, so the images have a huge rhetorical power.”

Amanda Brown in Kent, England, contributed to this report.