Russia, Canada neighbours?

Seabed territorial push could bring borders together


Depending on how competing national claims to undersea Arctic pan out, Canada could end up sharing a border with Russia. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Depending on how competing national claims to undersea Arctic pan out, Canada could end up sharing a border with Russia. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Postmedia News

Two Canadian legal scholars have published a study showing how the push by northern nations for extended seabed territory in the Arctic Ocean could soon find Canada negotiating a maritime boundary with a new next-door neighbour: Russia.

Most of Canada’s borderlands and boundary waters separate this country from the United States, including Alaska in the northwest corner of the continent. Canada also has maritime boundaries with Denmark (between Ellesmere Island and Greenland) and France, which oversees the tiny islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon south of Newfoundland.

But the possibility that Canada and Russia might one day share a border has, until now, seemed unimaginable given the vast ocean distances separating the two countries, and the relatively modest 370-kilometre (200-nautical-mile) offshore zone within which nations are permitted to exercise exclusive jurisdiction and resource rights.

But a recently revealed oddity arising from a Beaufort Sea boundary dispute between Canada and the U.S. — along with the advent of a UN treaty allowing countries to claim ownership over extended continental shelves lying beyond the current 200-mile limit — has highlighted how Canada and Russia could be on a cartographic intercept course somewhere north of 80 degrees latitude.

The surprising scenario is laid out in a lengthy article published this month in the academic journal Ocean Development & International Law and co-authored by University of British Columbia geopolitics professor Michael Byers, a leading Canadian expert on Arctic sovereignty issues, and his PhD student, James Baker.

The article principally explores possible solutions to the long-running dispute between Canada and the U.S. over a Lake Ontario-sized — and potentially oil-rich — area of the southern Beaufort Sea that both countries claim to own.

But in examining how that dispute might be resolved, the authors envisioned one outcome that would see the Canada-U.S. maritime boundary set in such a way that Canadian and Russian territorial claims would end up intersecting in waters about 1,000 kilometres northwest of the Yukon coast.

“One final curiosity remains about the effects of any maritime delimitation between Canada and the United States; namely, the potential for overlapping claims between Canada and Russia,” the authors state.

They outline a scenario in which “the U.S. boundary with Russia would naturally terminate at the point at which it met the new U.S.-Canada line — provided that Canada is able to demonstrate that its rights to an extended continental shelf stretch that far. This might necessitate the negotiation of a maritime boundary between Canada and Russia.”

If the history-making situation did come about, it would be the result of some very good news for Canada. The country’s seabed claims in the western Arctic Ocean are most likely to succeed under UN rules if federal geologists can prove that thick sediments built up on the floor of the Beaufort Sea are the result of eons of discharges of silt from the Mackenzie River — and thereby constitute a “natural prolongation” of the Canadian land mass.

And in fact, a Canadian research team that’s been surveying the bottom of the Beaufort Sea over the past four years is finding strong evidence of exactly that.

Jacob Verhoef, the Natural Resources Canada geoscientist leading the country’s quest for extended continental shelves in the Arctic, recently told Postmedia News that the Beaufort surveys have produced extensive, high-quality data — due for presentation to the UN by the end of 2013 — that seems to support a Canadian claim reaching the northern part of the Beaufort Sea and potentially into the central Arctic Ocean.

“The possibility certainly exists that Canada and Russia will at some point have to negotiate a maritime boundary some 500-700 miles (800-1,100 km) to the north of Alaska,” Byers told Postmedia News. “Although this seems counter-intuitive, it’s important to realize that, because the Arctic Ocean is relatively shallow, coastal state rights over continental shelves can sometimes extend quite a long way offshore.”

The potential for a similar overlap exists near the North Pole, where Canada, Russia and Denmark could all, conceivably, submit competing claims for new territory along the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea mountain range that extends across the Arctic Ocean from the vicinity of Ellesmere Island and northwest Greenland to the north coast of Russia.

In the western Arctic Ocean, the Canada-U.S. dispute over the Beaufort Sea flows from the different methods used by the two countries to delineate the maritime boundary north of the Yukon-Alaska land border.

While Canada has long argued that the offshore boundary should simply follow the straight line north of the Yukon-Alaska border along the 141st meridian, U.S. officials contend the demarcation should be calculated using an “equidistance” formula based on the shape of the two countries’ respective coastlines — bulging northward on the Alaskan side, vaguely indented on the Canadian side. It’s a method that would give the U.S. control over a triangle-shaped, 21,500-sq.-km wedge of the Beaufort that Canada claims for itself.

But an unexpected twist emerged recently in the Beaufort Sea dispute — a quirk that the Canadian government has acknowledged is now a factor in the ongoing negotiations to resolve that matter, and which Baker and Byers suggest could eventually lead to the creation of the first-ever Russia-Canada boundary far north of the disputed zone.

Put simply, the U.S. position — when applied to the central and northern parts of the Beaufort Sea — would actually favour Canada, pushing the boundary between the two countries on a roughly 45-degree angle far to the northwest and eventually to a point above 80 degrees north, where it would intersect with the U.S.-Russia maritime boundary.

Similarly, Canada’s current position on the dispute would favour this country in the southern Beaufort but entitle the U.S. to more undersea territory at northerly latitudes.

The reason for the anomaly is that, as the boundary runs away from the mainland coast of the two countries, the more Canada’s Banks Island comes into play under the U.S. formula for drawing the demarcation line, pushing the maritime border westward and expanding Canada’s area of jurisdiction.

Until recently, the focus of the dispute was on potential oil and gas resources in the southern wedge of the Beaufort. But the Verhoef-led research — much of it carried out jointly with U.S. scientists in recent summers — has been illuminating the huge potential for seabed claims and potential petroleum targets far from the mainland coasts of Yukon and Alaska.

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