The Yukon government is speaking out about a recent decision by the United States to open up oil and gas drilling leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, saying it violates Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.
Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released its five-year oil and gas leasing program for 2017-2022. The program includes three potential lease sales off the coast of Alaska between 2020 and 2022, including one in the Beaufort Sea.
But the map of the Beaufort Sea lease area includes a section of disputed territory that has long been claimed by both Canada and the United States.
On Friday, Justice Minister Brad Cathers tweeted that “This plan is a violation of Arctic sovereignty & territory that rightfully belongs to the Yukon & Canada.”
In an interview with the News this week, Premier Darrell Pasloski agreed, saying that no leases should be issued in the area until the dispute is resolved.
For decades, Canada has claimed that the true boundary runs due north along the 141st meridian, a continuation of the land border between the Yukon and Alaska. But American maps show the boundary extending perpendicular to the coast, using the principle of equidistance. Since the Alaskan shoreline angles southeast where it meets the Yukon, the American boundary extends northeast into the Beaufort Sea. The difference between the two maps is a wedge-shaped area of about 21,000 square kilometres.
“We believe that these are Canadian waters,” Pasloski said.
He said the Yukon government previously sent a letter to former prime minister Stephen Harper, urging Ottawa to resolve the disagreement. The territorial government will draft a similar letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the wake of this decision, he said.
He also cast doubt on the safety of drilling in the Beaufort Sea. “We question whether or not we would support any development at this time in that area.”
But Michael Byers, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, believes the Yukon government is overstating the case when it refers to this issue as a violation of Arctic sovereignty. He said this isn’t the first time this has happened.
“It was a mildly provocative move, but certainly not unprecedented and not threatening in any way,” he said.
Even though the lease area map does include the disputed zone, Byers said, it’s unlikely that the U.S. would issue a lease within that zone before the dispute was resolved. He also said oil companies would probably not want to drill in disputed territory.
Still, he said now would be a good time to resolve the disagreement, since oil prices are low and oil companies aren’t lining up to drill in the region.
“I think it’s advisable to do it sooner rather than later.”
As to what that resolution might look like, a possible solution has been floating around since 2010.
International law allows countries to claim territory beyond the standard 200-nautical mile limit from the coastline if the continental seabed extends further, as is the case in the Beaufort Sea.
And efforts to map the Arctic seabed have shown that using the principle of equidistance preferred by the U.S., the boundary would actually change course and veer to the west beyond 200 nautical miles, because of the presence of Banks Island, N.W.T.
Byers calls this a “win-win” situation, because the American solution would actually end up being good for Canada, too.
“Either position is possibly of equal benefit to either country,” he said.
But even though Byers has been talking about this solution since 2010, it hasn’t amounted to much. He said former foreign minister Lawrence Cannon was interested in the issue, but after he was replaced by John Baird in 2011, the file was dropped.
Now, he thinks Ottawa and Washington should renew discussions before the U.S. election in November.
Earlier this month, Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama jointly pledged to protect the Arctic from overfishing and development. But they were “significantly and curiously silent” on the disputed territories in the Beaufort Sea and the Northwest Passage, Byers said.
Meanwhile, both the Yukon Liberals and NDP accused the territorial government of inconsistency in its position on the Beaufort Sea this week.
Liberal Leader Sandy Silver pointed out that the Yukon Party’s last two election platforms – in 2006 and 2011 – have included commitments to “Ensure the 141st meridian is recognized as the offshore northern boundary between Yukon and the State of Alaska.”
“Let’s put that on the long list of items that the Yukon Party promised and has not delivered,” he said. But … they shouldn’t have made that promise to begin with, because this is a federal issue.”
He said the recent election of a federal Liberal government is the only reason the Yukon Party is making noise about this now, and pointed out that the issue wasn’t resolved during the 10 years under Harper, either.
“The only thing that’s changing here is now the Yukon Party is using this as political fodder.”
NDP Leader Liz Hanson questioned Pasloski’s apparent concern about the safety of drilling in Arctic waters, since the Yukon Party’s last two election platforms also refer to the Yukon’s right “to share the government revenues derived from oil and gas development in what should be recognized as the Yukon’s portion of the Beaufort Sea.”
“There needs to be some internal consistency with respect to policy,” she said.
Under the new program, the Beaufort Sea would not be open for drilling before 2020. The public comment period for the program runs until May 2.
Contact Maura Forrest at