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ILULISSAT, Greenland (Reuters) - Five Arctic coastal nations agreed on Wednesday to let the U.N. rule on conflicting territorial claims on the region's seabed, which may hold up to one fourth of the world's undiscovered hydrocarbon reserves.
"We affirmed our commitment to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told a news conference.
Ministers from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States met in Greenland for a two-day summit to discuss sovereignty over the Arctic Ocean seabed.
Under the 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, coastal states own the seabed beyond existing 200-nautical mile (370-km) zones if it is part of a continental shelf of shallower waters. The rules aim to fix shelves' outer limits on a clear geological basis, but have created a tangle of overlapping Arctic claims.
The United States has not yet ratified the convention, but Negroponte urged Congress to do so as soon as possible.
The countries, most major oil exporters, agreed to settle conflicting territorial claims by the law until a U.N. body could rule on the disputes.
Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller called the meeting in his country's self-governing province to try to end squabbling over ownership of huge tracts of the Arctic seabed, although it will be several decades before oil drilling in the deep Arctic sea is feasible.
Also attending were Greenland Premier Hans Enoksen, Russian and Norwegian Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and Jonas Gahr Stoere and Canadian Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn.
"The declaration reflects the will of all participants to resolve all issues which might evolve in the spirit of cooperation and on the basis of international law," said Lavrov.
Russia last summer angered the other Arctic nations by planting a flag on the seabed under the North Pole, an incident Lavrov dismissed as insignificant on Wednesday.
Environmental groups were not invited and have criticized the scramble for the Arctic, saying it will damage unique animal habitats. They call for a treaty similar to that regulating the Antarctic, which bans military activity and mineral mining.
"It is insane to view the crisis of the melting of the Arctic ice simply as an opportunity to carve up the resources that are currently protected under the ice," Greenpeace Nordic campaigner, Lindsay Keenan, told Reuters.
Greenpeace said the world already had four times more fossil fuel reserves than it could afford to burn.
"They are going to use the law of the sea to carve up the raw materials, but they are ignoring the law of common sense. These are the same fossil fuels that are driving climate change in the first place," Keenan said.
The five nations agreed however that no special Arctic treaty was necessary, saying in the declaration there was no need to develop a new international legal regime.
The talks also focused on the effects of climate change felt by people of the Arctic, and covered cooperation over accidents, maritime security and oil spills.
Scientists believe rising temperatures could leave most of the Arctic ice-free in the summer months in a few decades' time.
As the ice sheet shrinks, icebergs will form and threaten shipping, which may increase because the Northwest Passage will open and allow a quicker route.
"The safety of life requires that we cooperate on search and rescue operations and maintain regular communications to respond to accidents and environmental emergencies," Negroponte said.
(Additional reporting by Gelu Sulugiuc in Copenhagen)
Editing by Elizabeth Piper