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Petroleum News: Canada, U.S. assert Arctic claims: not yet a Cold War but a decided chill is developing…

Both countries push ahead with plans to deploy military icebreakers to region as melting ice sets stage for pursuit of Arctic’s resources; Washington rejects Ottawa’s insistence that the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway

Gary Park
For Petroleum News
8 October 2006

It’s not yet a Cold War between Canada and the United States in the Arctic, but a decided chill is developing as both countries assert their right to sovereignty.

Both are pushing ahead with plans to build and deploy military icebreakers to the region as global warming and melting ice sets the stage for pursuit of the Arctic’s resource riches.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised to use three armed icebreakers to defend Canada’s unresolved claims to the Northwest Passage, while a report commissioned by the U.S. Congress has said the U.S. Coast Guard needs two icebreakers to bolster interests in the Arctic and Antarctic.

The congressional document says the prospect of year-round shipping in the Northwest Passage puts pressure on the U.S. to adopt a “more active and influential presence in the Arctic” to protect “not only its territorial interests, but also its presence as a world power.”

When the dispute first flared earlier this year, David Wilkins, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, said Washington does not recognize Canadian claims to the Arctic waters and neither do other countries.

Harper takes tough stance

Harper, despite his strenuous efforts to bring a thaw to Canada-U.S. relations, has taken one of the toughest stances by any Canadian prime minister, brushing off U.S. accusations that he is worsening the dispute.
In northern speeches during the late summer he said Canada “can’t defend Arctic sovereignty with words alone.”

“It takes a Canadian presence on the ground, in the air and on the sea and a government that is internationally recognized for delivering on its commitments,” he said.

That’s why northern military exercises have been held this year to “make absolutely clear there is no question about Canada’s Arctic border,” Harper said.

“It extends from the northern tip of Labrador all the way up to the east coast of Ellesmere Island to Alberta, then it traces the western perimeter of the Queen Elizabeth Islands down to the Beaufort Sea. From there it hugs the coasts of the Northwest Territories and Yukon to the Canada-U.S. border at Alaska,” he said.

Along that border, Canada’s jurisdiction extends outward 200 miles into the surrounding sea, just as it does along our Atlantic and Pacific coastlines,” Harper declares. “No more. And no less.”

He insisted Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is firmly anchored in almost 100 years of history, including recognition in the 1980s of those Arctic possessions under International law.

But Harper conceded that for too long Canadian governments have failed to rigorously enforce that sovereignty, allowing foreign ships (including those from the U.S.) to routinely sail through the territory without permission.

U.S. report compares Northwest Passage to Straits of Hormuz

The U.S. congressional report makes it clear that changing climate, new trade patterns and political conditions will change the Arctic and make it imperative for the world’s sole superpower to assert its interests and continue to champion freedom of the seas.
It compared the Northwest Passage to the Straits of Hormuz, where most of the world’s oil supply exits the Persian Gulf.

As with Hormuz, the U.S. must be prepared to “patrol and defend” shipping lanes if transit routes develop in the Arctic, despite Ottawa’s assertion that the Northwest Passage is a Canadian internal waterway.

For Canada and its northern territorial governments, more than rights of passage are at stake. The Arctic Islands hold what is seen as the last unexploited oil, natural gas and mineral riches in Canada, which would be more easily developed if the harsh winter operating conditions were diminished.

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