drill baby drill yukon edition

Last week, the federal government announced plans for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort Sea directly north of the Yukon's Ivvavik National Park and the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. But it wasn't our government.

Last week, the federal government announced plans for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort Sea directly north of the Yukon’s Ivvavik National Park and the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd.

But it wasn’t our government.

It was President Barack Obama’s administration, which announced plans to enable oil and gas exploration and development across wide areas of the US outer continental shelf, including waters off Florida, Virginia and Alaska.

Some of the waters that Obama opened to exploration and eventual development are claimed by both Canada and the Americans. This triangular slice of disputed Beaufort Sea is about 20,000 square kilometres.

But more on that later (the dispute has festered since 1825, so it can wait until the end of this column).

First, more on Obama’s bold policy move, which surprised many of both his opponents and supporters. According to KTUU Channel 2 News in Anchorage, new lease sales in the Beaufort will be delayed until 2012-17 to allow further environmental study. But some work on existing leases could begin as early as this summer.

Many American environmentalists are disappointed in Obama’s announcement, but there has always been a tough core to Obama’s policy agenda. And on energy policy he is driven by two factors: climate change and foreign policy. During his election campaign, he promised to end America’s “addiction” to foreign oil, which he said drained American wallets and filled those of hostile countries around the world.

“I will set a clear goal as president: in 10 years we will finally end our dependence on oil in the Middle East,” he said during a major speech before taking office.

Obama is attempting to occupy the centre of the political spectrum here. He has declared Alaska’s Bristol Bay “too special” for drilling, but has opened up the Beaufort and other areas. He is pushing renewable energy, but is also trying to develop more American oil and gas.

He was criticized from left and right. But KTUU reports that both of Alaska’s senators, a Democrat and a Republican, supported Obama. Governor Parnell wanted Obama to go further, telling Alaskans that 35,000 jobs could be created. With less generous federal funding than the Yukon, Alaska’s leaders are desperate to replace the revenues from the aging Prudhoe Bay oil wells.

The American side of the Beaufort is estimated to have 2-7 billion barrels of oil and up to 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Regardless of how Obama’s strategy works electorally in the US, it raises major questions for Canada.

First, it revives interest in the dormant Beaufort boundary dispute, which dates back to 1825’s Treaty of Saint Petersburg between the British and Russian Empires.

The treaty was negotiated by Russian Count Nesselrode and legendary British diplomat Stratford Canning. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Nesselrode and Canning had lots on their minds and the treaty sorting out their imperial boundaries in North America is barely over 1,000 words long.

The vagueness of the treaty is famous, and not surprising given that no one who negotiated it had ever been to Alaska and that the Russians and British were in the midst of dealing old-fashioned European power politics thanks to the Greek war of independence and the potential collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In 1903, the Alaska boundary tribunal sorted out the Canada-Alaska border in the panhandle (much to Canada’s chagrin) but left the Beaufort question unresolved.

The treaty’s key sentence, written in diplomatic French, says that the border will be formed by the 141st meridian “dans son prolongement jusqu’à la mer Glaciale.” French experts from Whitehorse Elementary’s Grade 7 French Immersion class confirm that this means “until the frozen sea,” presumably the Beaufort.

Canada has always argued that the maritime boundary, not mentioned in the treaty since they didn’t have offshore oil and gas in mind, continues in a straight line to the North Pole. The Americans on the other hand prefer the “equidistance” method of determining the ocean boundary. Since, as the map shows, the shore tilts Southeast at the border, this means the Beaufort border should tilt Northeast. Vast amounts of oil and gas may be in the disputed triangle that results.

Diplomats, international lawyers and conspiracy theorists love this kind of issue. It has a thousand legal turns and twists, and depends on the intent of long-dead negotiators in obscure texts written in foreign languages.

Canadians often assume that their claim is rock solid and that the Beaufort is another example of American bullying. But this columnist has not yet seen a convincing legal brief to that effect. This may explain why the Canadian government has not been particularly enthusiastic about taking the issue to an international tribunal. We should be cautious of repeating the 1903 Panhandle crisis, where we were supremely confident of our right to Skagway. At one point the Americans even offered us a very long-term lease to a port near Haines. But we held out for more and got less.

At least we had the British to blame that time.

Furthermore, even if we did get some international legal panel to back our claim, anyone who thinks the Americans will hand over a chunk of “American” territory to a foreign government because of an international legal ruling hasn’t spent enough time at the Juneau Gun Club.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.