Today is the deadline for Canada to file scientific evidence to justify its claim to Arctic resources beyond its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
The federal government is being cagey about the submission that it is supposed to file within 10 years of signing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty setting out maritime rules.
“It’s being a really closely held secret. The big thing that everyone is wondering about is how far up the Lomonosov Ridge we’re [Canada] actually going to go,” says University of Calgary professor and Arctic expert Rob Huebert.
The Lomonosov Ridge is an undersea mountain range that runs between Ellesmere Island, Canada’s most northern land mass, and the east Siberian coast in Russia.
The science package that Canada will file with the UN is essentially a series of undersea co-ordinates that map what the government claims is this country’s extended continental shelf. Under Article 76 of the UN maritime treaty, any coastal country can claim rights to the seabed and sub-seabed up to 150 nautical miles beyond its exclusive economic zone.
In one exception, a country can claim beyond 150 nautical miles if there is a ridge that juts out from its extended continental shelf.
Canada could potentially have conflicting claims with Denmark on its border with Greenland and with the U.S. in the Beaufort Sea. But the contentious overlap might be with Russia on the Lomonosov Ridge.
Russia presented its claim to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2001. That claim ran along the Lomonosov Ridge right up to the North Pole. If Canada has a claim to the Lomonosov Ridge, it could reach 200 nautical miles beyond the pole. That is the halfway point between Canada and Russia.
The UN commission just judges the science and doesn’t have the power to resolve competing claims. Those have to be resolved state-to-state.
University of Ottawa Russia specialist Ivan Katchanovski doesn’t expect there will be a conflict, even if the Canadian and Russian claims overlap.
“There is potential for significant dispute, but don’t expect this is going to lead to a major confrontation or cold war,” Katchanovski told CBC News.
He argued that such a confrontation would make Russian President Vladimir Putin look weak.
“Putin wants to collaborate with Western powers. He does not want to be treated as a secondary power. He wants to be considered to be equal,” Katchanovski explained. “Any confrontation would be detrimental to the Russian image abroad.”
As for the Danes and Americans, Canada worked closely with both of them on mapping the sea floor. Denmark submitted its claim to the commission in November.
U.S. hasn’t signed treaty
The U.S. situation is a little more complicated. It has yet to ratify the maritime treaty, so it doesn’t have the right to submit a scientific claim to the UN commission.
That hasn’t stopped the Americans from working with Canada, though.
“We get along pretty well with the Canadians, and with respect to the surveying of the extended continental shelf, the two countries found that they could co-operate, and that would be a win-win that would save the taxpayers money,” said John P. Bellinger III, an international law expert and former adviser to the last Bush administration on the treaty.
Bellinger said the U.S. would accept Canada’s submission to the UN commission even if there was overlap, “provided that it does not prejudice the U.S. claim.”
Bellinger did offer one caveat to the government in Ottawa.
“If Canada tries to take the North Pole just before Christmas, I think the United States would be very opposed to that.”