Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister said his government intends to lay claim to the North Pole, but is delaying a full international bid for seabed rights in the resource-rich Arctic until scientists can gather sufficient data to back up this territorial expansion.
John Baird held a news conference Monday to explain why Canada has filed only a partial submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf by last's week's deadline.
He made it clear that Ottawa has no intention of forfeiting the geographic North Pole, a stand that will put Canada at odds with Russia and Denmark – two countries expected to stake an interest in the region. This is the first time a government cabinet minister has publicly declared Canada wants to claim the Pole.
Mr. Baird said Canada has not completed mapping the underwater Lomonosov Ridge that the government hopes would effectively link this country to the North Pole.
The due date for Canada's filing was Dec. 6 and Ottawa confirmed Monday that it filed only a partial claim last week that included a separate for 1.2 million square kilometres of Atlantic seabed rights plus a note saying it would file an Arctic claim at a later date.
"We have asked our officials and scientists to do additional and necessary work to ensure that a submission for the full extent of the continental shelf in the Arctic includes Canada's claim to the North Pole," Mr. Baird told reporters on Parliament Hill.
"What we want to do is claim the biggest geographic area possible for Canada."
As The Globe and Mail first reported last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a last-minute intervention in Canada's planned submission to the United Nations commission that is accepting claims for seabed rights in regions such as the Arctic.
Mr. Harper asked Canadian bureaucrats to go back to the drawing board and craft a more expansive claim for ocean-floor resources in the polar region after the proposed submission they showed him failed to include the geographic North Pole.
Ottawa will be doing more mapping and research to support this.
The government failed to adequately explain Monday why after 10 years of work on the claim – and $200-million of spending – it had not identified and resolved shortcomings in mapping before the December, 2013, deadline.
"I think in many respects, you can say we ran out of time," Mr. Baird said. "This is a gigantic process, one of the biggest geographical exercises in Canadian history. We've come a long way. What I think Canadians would expect us to do is to take the time to get it right."
University of Calgary Arctic expert Rob Huebert can't explain why Canada's submission has run into overtime. He speculated that the scientists and civil servants in charge of the mapping process either failed to pay sufficient attention to the political significance of claiming the Pole – or, conversely, that they were reluctant to submit a claim that would create a conflict with Russia.
Russia already filed a submission in 2001 that lays claim to seabed rights as far as the Pole, but was informed its bid required more supporting evidence. Denmark is expected to do so by 2014.
At stake is potential wealth. The Arctic is believed to contain as much as one-quarter of the world's undiscovered energy resources, and countries are tabling scientific evidence with the UN commission to win rights to polar sea-floor assets.
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country can secure control of ocean floor beyond the internationally recognized 200-nautical-mile limit if it can demonstrate the seabed is an extension of its continental shelf.
Mr. Baird pointed out that owing to a backlog at the UN commission it will be several years before Canada's claim is scrutinized – a delay that gives Ottawa time to flesh out the bid for Arctic seabed rights.
To support a stake that lays claim as far as the North Pole, Canada would have to establish that underwater mountain ridges including the Lomonosov Ridge are linked to Canada's continental shelf.
"It has to be shown that it's connected to the North American continent and extends outward. If there's a break it doesn't hold," said Prof. Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal countries are entitled to economic control over the waters that stretch as far as 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from their shores. If a country can prove its continental shelf extends even farther, it may be granted control of a greater expanse.
Countries such as Canada have conducted aerial and ship-borne mapping of the Arctic seabed for years to support their claims.
Mr. Baird said Canada last Friday filed claims for a massive amount of seabed off the Atlantic coast. These Atlantic claims will likely place Canada at odds with the United States, Denmark and France.
Canada says it believes France has no right to claim additional seabed rights around its overseas holdings of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. But Canadian officials in a technical briefing said they expect Paris to differ.
"Our submissions set out the potential outer limits of our Continental Shelf in the Atlantic Ocean including extensive areas in the Labrador Sea, the Grand Banks and off the province of Nova Scotia. In all, we're talking about an area of about 1.2 million square kilometres," Mr. Baird said. "That's roughly the size of Alberta and Saskatchewan combined."