From Arctic sovereignty to Arctic spills

Harper's focus on Arctic sovereignty is a red herring, says Michael Byers. And by dwelling on it, the prime minister has done Canadians "a disservice.

Harper’s focus on Arctic sovereignty is a red herring, says Michael Byers.

And by dwelling on it, the prime minister has done Canadians “a disservice.”

The Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia is coming to Whitehorse today to discuss Arctic sovereignty.

This whole preconception that “the Arctic is up for grabs is incorrect,” said Byers.

In fact, most Arctic sovereignty issues were resolved decades ago.

In the 1990s, Russia and the US worked out their maritime boundaries, and earlier this year Russia and Norway resolved their dispute in the Barents Sea.

That leaves only Canada with some contested territory.

For the last 38 years, Canada has been in discussions with Denmark over Hans Island, a tiny 1.3-kilometre-square piece of land halfway between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Denmark and Canada are also in a maritime boundary dispute in the Lincoln Sea, north of Greenland.

But these are disputes with a friend, considering how much Lego we import from Denmark, said Byers with a laugh.

Canada’s only other maritime boundary dispute is with the US, in the oil-rich Beaufort Sea.

But this is hardly a serious sovereignty threat, said Byers.

In fact, for the past year, the US and Canada have been in friendly negotiations over their contested Beaufort Sea boundary.

“As we speak, a Canadian and US icebreaker are working together to map the seabed,” he said.

The seabed mapping may change the name of the game, according to Byers.

Previously, the only land up for grabs under the Beaufort Sea was up to 200 nautical miles from shore.

After that, it was international waters.

But that changed recently.

Now, the natural extension of the continental shelf is also considered up for grabs.

That’s why the US and Canada suddenly have icebreakers out there, charting the ocean floor.

And as the Arctic ice sheet continues to recede, due to climate change, this boundary keeps getting larger, said Byers.

The irony is, use of fossil fuels are driving climate change, which in turn is melting the sea ice, making more fossil fuels available under the Beaufort Sea, he said.

With the sea ice melting, the costs of drilling in the Arctic has dropped, said Byers.

Before too many oil companies started jockeying for drill sites, Byers – as a member of the international advisory board ArcticNet – approached former minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon and convinced him to start negotiations with the US.

“We initiated negotiations over the boundary last year, before they could agree to disagree,” said Byers.

But Harper still made Arctic sovereignty an election issue.

“He’s been on a five-year-long election campaign for a majority government,” said Byers.

“And Arctic sovereignty resonates with Canadians.

“But rather than exaggerating the tensions when, in fact, the situation is good, we should be creating more of the stability we need as the Arctic becomes a much busier place.”

It won’t be long until oil wells are popping up in the Beaufort Sea, said Byers.

And Tuktoyaktuk may soon be a bustling port city, he added.

But rushing forward with underwater oil drilling without the proper safety precautions and regulations in place could end in disaster, said Byers, referencing a recent Oceans North report.

Canada is on the verge of approving its first deepwater oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, according to the report, released this month.

These first exploration wells are the most risky, it says, with chances of “catastrophic blowouts like the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

“Yet Canada has not implemented many important recommendations made in 1990 by a review board that examined a shallow-water oil drilling proposal in the Arctic,” says the report.

One “major gap” is an “inability to contain and clean up a major oil spill in the Arctic’s icy, remote waters,” says the report.

Any spill in the Arctic would involve sub-zero temperatures, moving ice, brutal storms and hurricane-force winds, says the report.

And the spill site would be difficult to access from land or sea because of the scarcity of roads and the vast distance from any major ports, it says.

An oil spill in the Beaufort Sea would be “catastrophic beyond belief,” said Byers.

“And Canada needs to develop liabilities and regulation regimes to make oil companies act responsibly.”

Despite a request by Inuit leaders for a halt to new licensing after the Gulf oil spill, in order to review how to proceed responsibly with hydrocarbon development, the department issued three offshore Arctic oil licences in 2010 and 2011, according to the Oceans North report.

“We don’t need to rush forward with this,” said Byers.

“It’s a difficult and dangerous place to work and it is important to proceed in the safest manner possible.”

Now that negotiations with the US are underway, oil development is a very real possibility in the near future.

And it could be taking place even farther offshore, if the continental shelf extends well beyond 200 nautical miles, which is quite likely, according to Byers.

In fact, the farther the shelf extends, the easier Canada/US negotiations become, as the boundary moves more in both countries’ favour.

“Canada’s boundary line becomes less hostile to US interests and vice versa,” he said.

“It’s a win-win situation.”

Both countries are just waiting for the science to come in, said Byers.

Arctic sovereignty has been Harper’s political talking point, but with Canada and the US already working together, what’s much more important is transboundary co-operation, he added.

“We want offshore drilling to occur in a region that is legally and politically stable, where there are clear jurisdictional zones of responsibility,” he said.

This is necessary for shipping and search-and-rescue, and it is essential for oil spill response, said Byers.

“Oil takes a long time to dissipate, especially in cold water.”

Byers is speaking tonight, September 14, at MacBride Museum. His talk begins at 7:30 p.m. and it’s free.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

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