Arctic scramble won’t resolve Yukon border dispute

Canada’s border dispute with the United States on the Beaufort Sea coast is still on ice. And an international treaty on maritime law…

Canada’s border dispute with the United States on the Beaufort Sea coast is still on ice.

And an international treaty on maritime law won’t help it thaw.

Despite the heated rush to carve a chunk of the Arctic for themselves, northern nations aren’t solving any territorial disputes by using the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As the era of Arctic trade routes and resource extraction approaches, the treaty is bringing some needed protocol to the melee.

This summer, Canada and the United States performed joint mapping of the Arctic seabed to determine how far their territory extends beyond the first 200 nautical miles from their shoreline.

Research from the mapping exercise shows that sediment from the Mackenzie River extends Canada’s Arctic claim much farther into the Beaufort Sea than originally thought.

But it doesn’t mean the Beaufort Sea border fight is any closer to being resolved.

The 1825 Anglo-Russian treaty settled the boundary along the 141st meridian, as it is on land between Alaska and the Yukon.

But the US purchased Alaska in 1867, bringing with them a handful of territorial disagreements along the Alaska panhandle and in the Beaufort Sea.

The Americans determine the Beaufort Sea border on the principle of equidistance, a widely-accepted mode of determining borders at sea.

That rule sets the border at a 90-degree angle from the shoreline.

And because the coast at the Alaska-Yukon border is diagonal, the US believes their maritime border juts to the northeast.

The disputed area looks like a wedge extending from the coast.

The conflict is far from contentious, but stagnation on the issue does cost each country business in offshore oil and gas exploration, said Yukon Member of Parliament Larry Bagnell.

“For one thing, there are a lot of resources in there,” said Bagnell.

“What happens is they have put out potential call for oil leases in what we consider Canada, and unfortunately companies have never taken them up on it because they probably realize we would put them into international courts questioning whether it was their jurisdiction,” he said.

Both countries have also issued notices to each other in disagreement with the call for exploration leases.

“Who’s responsible for the environmental protection of that area?” said Bagnell.

The Law of the Sea, ratified by Canada in 2003, offers guidelines for countries to follow in order to resolve maritime issues.

But it won’t act as a court to judge existing territorial disputes.

“This zone is within the 200 nautical mile limit,” said Jacob Verhoef, a scientist from the Geological Survey of Canada who works on Canada’s Law of the Sea submission.

Verhoef worked on the Mackenzie Delta seabed research.

“This is an entirely different issue and our data will not be used to resolve (the border) dispute,” he said in an e-mail.

“The rules that define the outer limits beyond 200 nautical miles are not used to define boundaries within 200 nautical miles,” he added.

The department of Foreign Affairs didn’t see any pressure to resolve the issue either.

“Canada’s long-held position has not been affected by our ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 2003,” said Eugenie Cormier-Lassonde, spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Canada.

“The mapping activities do not alter the rights and obligations of either country with respect to this well managed dispute,” she said in an e-mail.

A US official confirmed that the Beaufort Sea dispute is not affected by joint mapping exercises.

Still, Bagnell is hoping amicable work on the mapping can extend to the territory.

“We are co-operating with the Americans on (mapping),” he said. “What we’re not talking about is this border dispute that we’ve had for years and we’ve just let lie there.”

But there is little certainty that there is any oil or natural gas in the area.

“Clarity is always valuable in any industry,” said Travis Davies, spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

“But we don’t have any fundamental concerns with the area,” he said.

“The oil is more to the east and the gas is concentrated more toward the Mackenzie,” he added.

Contact James Munson at jamesm@yukon-news.com