Fight heats up over future control of the North Pole

The debate over which country may hold eventual jurisdiction over the North Pole moved into high gear yesterday, as Canada made a submission to the United Nations that leaves open the door for further Arctic claims.

The decision holds symbolic significance and could ultimately determine whether Canada or another nation holds rights to drill for oil, gas and minerals at the top of the world. It also could lead to tensions among Canada, Russia and Denmark, which have made similar claims to the seabed of the North Pole.

In its application, Canada focused on expanded claims of its continental shelf in the Atlantic but made clear in a separate filing and press conference that it intends to eventually submit a fuller application claiming the North Pole seabed.

The move comes as scientists continue to predict that the Arctic Ocean may experience an ice-free summer by midcentury, opening opportunities for oil and gas development, as well as new shipping lanes.

"We believe the scientific data will show that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of [Canada's] continental shelf. And the North Pole is attached to this ridge, and therefore can be claimed," said Hugh Adsett, deputy legal adviser at Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

Under rules of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, Canada had until Friday to make continental shelf claims beyond its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. A country can claim that it holds rights to the seabed beyond its zone if it can present scientific evidence that there is a ridge jutting out from its continental shelf.

A 3-nation face-off?

In Canada's view, the Lomonosov Ridge -- an underwater ridge extending from the Canadian Arctic Archipelago -- should give it jurisdictional rights to the North Pole. The country just needs to do additional scientific mapping before submitting a fuller application of its jurisdiction to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, Adsett said.


The claim for extending the continental shelf would not include rights to the sea itself, or shipping lanes. The role of the commission is to judge whether the science is accurate or incomplete; a dispute of overlapping regions would have to be resolved among countries themselves.

The move sets up an potential disagreement among the three nations and could determine the fate of potential seabed riches, said Robert Huebert, an associate professor at the University of Calgary. "The Russians are getting more belligerent about their Arctic," he said. Russia famously planted a flag near the North Pole seabed in 2007 and recently held 30 members of Greenpeace for two months after a protest on an oil rig.

At the same time, the maneuver may help Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's popularity ahead of national elections in Canada, said Joel Plouffe, a researcher at the Center for Interuniversity Research on the International Relations of Canada and Québec. "This is what I call Stephen Harper's flag-planting moment," he said. He said he wished the claim had been handled more quietly, so as not to spark international tensions at the Arctic Council, a body of Arctic nations, as Canada continues its two-year chairmanship.

"This gives the [false] impression that the council is in crisis," he said.

According to a report being released on Arctic oil and gas development by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars this morning, the U.S. and Canadian Arctic could hold 45 percent of all undiscovered Arctic energy resources.

Big talk, little preparation

Canada, meanwhile, has lagged in its Arctic resource development and does not have the advanced planning and major development projects already underway in the United States, Norway and Russia, the Wilson Center report notes.

However, Huebert said he doesn't see the prospect of severe tensions or war down the road, considering that five Arctic nations came together via the Ilulissat Declaration in 2008 and pledged to "orderly settlement" of overlapping claims. It's also possible that no country eventually will gain claim to the pole.

On a call yesterday, Allison Saunders, a deputy director with Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, made a similar point, emphasizing that it is "normal" for the commission to find that areas of a seabed are parts of the continental shelf of more than one state.

It could be a long time before it is known whether the North Pole holds any economic heft. "No one knows if it's a bunch of empty rocks," said Huebert. What scientists hypothesize is that the chance to find natural resources grows dimmer in deeper water in general. However, Huebert added that it wasn't that long ago that people thought North Dakota wasn't a major oil player, and the Arctic could be the same way.

Despite increasing interest in Arctic oil drilling and hydrocarbon development, "accessing these resources and bringing them to market could require another 20 years or more," considering the technology challenges and expense of operating in such a remote area, according to the Wilson Center.

It also could be years before Canada submits its full claim to the North Pole. The surveying process is expensive and can be undertaken during short windows of time, so the ability for Canada to gain much new information within the year is limited, said Plouffe. He questioned whether the country has a strong scientific case with its continental shelf, considering that it has been conducting sophisticated mapping exercises for 10 years to the tune of more than $200 million and still submitted a partial claim.

"I don't think [Canada's] case is that strong," Plouffe said. "If it was, they would have submitted something already."

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