Lines on a map

The Alaskans are at it again. No, we are not talking about a natural gas pipeline, although it might get dragged into it.

The Alaskans are at it again.

No, we are not talking about a natural gas pipeline, although it might get dragged into it.

Instead it is the offshore border in the Beaufort Sea between Alaska and the Yukon.

The Alaskans are laying claim to a bit that is Canada’s.

Not only are they laying claim to it, they’re offering to sell the oil and gas resources that are claimed by Canada.

First, a quick geography primer.

The Alaska/Yukon border is defined by the 141-degree longitude line.

It extends from the melting glacier ice fields of Kluane Park due north all the way to the Beaufort Sea.

This is the land border.

Most Yukoners are familiar with the southern portion of it because they cross it whenever they drive the Top of the World Highway or go beyond Canada’s most westerly community, Beaver Creek.

Offshore is where the differences between the United States and Canada occur.

Canada claims the border essentially extends straight north along 141-degree longitude to the 322-kilometre offshore limit.

The United States claims it veers immediately northeast once it hits tidewater, towards the Canadian Arctic archipelago islands.

Thus there is a small wedge of disputed offshore territory between the Yukon and Alaska.

Now this is a minor irritant, but it could become a big one.

This is because of what lies underneath the seabed within this wedge.

It is potentially very rich in fossil fuels such as oil and gas.

Thanks to climate change, which is caused by the combustion of fossil fuels, the ice is melting in the Arctic.

This could permit a potential Northwest Passage shipping route, part of which would include the disputed wedge.

Ironically, the disappearing sea ice will also permit easier extraction of even more fossil fuels.

For now, fossil-fuel activity is underway in two main areas of the Beaufort Sea.

These are Prudhoe Bay in Alaska and offshore from the Mackenzie River Delta in the Northwest Territories.

Exploratory offshore wells have been drilled elsewhere on both sides of the border and fossil-fuel deposits have been confirmed.

In fact, both countries are in the process of dealing with new oil and gas rights in the Beaufort Sea.

The Alaskans are inviting comments on a huge stretch of offshore sea-bed, all the way from Point Barrow to the disputed wedge off Canada’s Ivvavik National Park.

For more information on this, termed the Beaufort Sea Areawide 2008 Call for New Information, visit   http://www.dog.dnr.state.ak.us/oil/  or www.dog.dnr.state.ak.us/oil/. Deadline for comments is April 29.

Not to be outdone, the Canadian federal government is inviting bids for a variety of offshore regions due north of the Mackenzie Delta.

More information on the areas in question is available at http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/oil/act/Cal/index_e.html and www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/oil/act/Cal/index_e.html. Deadline for bids is June 2.

Thankfully, the Canadian offshore regions are well away from the border zone otherwise something might actually have to be done to resolve this issue.

In the grand scheme of things a small territorial dispute between two friendly countries might not seem that important.

But border wars have been started over less, and given the possibility of fossil fuel riches in the zone, this issue deserves attention.

Canada, and the Yukon, do have a couple of good cards in their hands when it comes to negotiating this issue.

Alaska is the one that wants to lay a mega-northern pipeline across the Yukon to ship fossil fuels south.

The United States is the one that keeps pushing for an international shipping right-of-way in the Northwest Passage.

And in addition to all that, both their state and federal government are, through oil and gas rights issuance, laying claim to a small bit of the Beaufort Sea that Canada also claims.

Like it or not, these issues could be linked.

After all, who issues pipeline permits within Canada, and who has the icebreakers to clear paths through a potential Northwest Passage?

The problem is, it does not appear that Canada is standing up to the United States on the issue of the Beaufort Sea border.

Last year our current prime minister said: “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic; either we use it or we lose it.”

Now this author is not suggestion that Canada should be issuing even more offshore oil and gas leases to establish sovereignty.

Offshore oil and gas development is one of the most environmentally damaging aspects of fossil-fuel development.

For either country to be promoting it, especially in the ecologically sensitive Beaufort Sea, is reprehensible.

But should Canada choose to not even raise the issue about where the border lies, irrespective of the possible economic or environmental concerns, this country will not have to concern itself with Arctic sovereignty and decisions about its use.

The Alaskans will have made the choice for us.

Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse-based part-time environmentalist.

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