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An inukshuk at Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.
An inukshuk at Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

Russia-Norway pact on Arctic zone puts pressure on Ottawa Add to ...

The race to carve up the Arctic's increasingly exposed riches got hotter as Norway and Russia divvied up an oil-rich zone off their northern coasts, leaving Canada as the only country with a share of both the remaining unresolved boundary disputes.

As nations race to stake claims seeking control over resource-rich continental shelves that stretch for hundreds of kilometres into the once-inaccessible Arctic Ocean, settling long-simmering disputes has become an urgent priority.

The Norwegian-Russia deal essentially divides in half the disputed 175,000 square kilometres (roughly the size of Canada's three Maritime provinces), where a vast estimated reservoir of 40 billion barrels of oil may now be exploited.

"Everyone else is sorting out their differences, we really are the laggards," said Michael Byers, who has written extensively on Canada's maritime boundary disputes and holds the in Global Politics and International Law chair at the University of British Columbia.

The Barents Sea pact, signed Wednesday by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, ends a bitter, 40-year dispute. Russia, then the Soviet Union, originally claimed the boundary should run straight north to the pole - using the same sector principle Ottawa has long drawn on maps showing a vast triangle of Canadian territory with its apex at the North Pole.

"The parallels to the Canada-U.S. dispute [in the Beaufort Sea]are quite close," Prof. Byers said.

Canada, relying on a disputed interpretation of an 1825 treaty that established the Yukon-Alaska border on the 141st meridian, claims the maritime boundary follows the same line "as far as the frozen ocean."

Washington says that means only to the coast, arguing maritime boundaries should be equidistant - a widely used and accepted method of drawing water boundaries. Ottawa says the 1825 treaty meant out across the frozen sea - which nearly two centuries later is increasingly unfrozen.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg speaks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a ceremony in Murmansk on Sept. 15, 2010, marking the end of a 40-year border dispute between the two countries.

"The key question in the case of the Beaufort Sea is whether Canada's argument that the boundary in the 1825 treaty between Great Britain and Russia applies," said Donald McRae, a University of Ottawa law professor and international expert on maritime boundaries.

"It is definitely worth arguing, although beyond 200 nautical miles an equidistance line would be better for Canada," he said.

It is a new, curious twist that the method long-championed by Washington to advance its claim in the Beaufort actually works to Canada's advantage beyond the 200-nautical-mile limit.

"Making progress on outstanding boundary issues will be a top priority," Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said last month, after decades of stalling by Ottawa on both the Beaufort dispute with the United States and a clash with Denmark over the maritime boundary between Baffin island and Greenland.

Prof. Byers said he believes a deal could get done within two years if Ottawa is serious.

However, even if the maritime disputes in both the Eastern and Western Arctic are sorted out, control of the Northwest Passage - now open again for the third successive summer and increasingly eyed as a shipping shortcut from Asia to Europe - looms as an even greater problem for Canada.

Ottawa says the Northwest Passage is Canadian sovereign waters, an assertion rejected by Washington and most other powers who regard it - like other key maritime lanes such as the straits of Gibraltar or Hormuz - as an international passage.

Sorting out bilateral disputes in the Arctic may be only the preliminary bout.

Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States are all expected to file ambitious, competing and overlapping claims stretching toward - and in some cases - beyond the North Pole as the frantic scramble for Arctic riches gathers pace.

"Canada does not accept the premise that the Arctic requires a fundamentally new governance structure or legal framework as some have suggested," Mr. Cannon said, rejecting calls from those who believe the rapidly changing Arctic - warmed, accessible and at risk as never before in human history - needs a new international regime to control the area.

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