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The Russian-owned tanker Christophe de Margerie is 300 metres long and can carry up to 170,000 cubic metres of liquid natural gas.

Last week, it shattered the speed record for traversing an icebound section of the Northeast Passage, and it did so without an icebreaker escort – a first this late in the year.

The vessel shaved a week off the usual transit time between Norway and the Korean Peninsula, and the state-owned Russian company Sovcomflot has commissioned 14 more tankers just like it.

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If Russian government forecasts are to be believed, tanker traffic in the Arctic Ocean will increase tenfold by 2020, meaning 150 crossings annually and a commensurate increase in pollution and the risk of a calamitous accident.

Climate change and dwindling ice caps are clearly ushering in a new era of maritime transport in the north. If there are to be rules to the newly expanded game, Canada must take a leading role in setting them.

With U.S. influence over global climate and environmental policy waning rapidly, there's an opportunity for that to happen.

The Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, passed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's father in 1970, established Canada's environmental oversight over the Northwest Passage.

It later gave rise to a "Canadian exception" in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: i.e., the latitude for coastal states to impose environmental regulations on ice-covered waters.

Canada should use that leverage to establish, along with Russia, Arctic shipping lanes and strict rules – speed limits, safety measures – for using them.

The previous government's northern strategy may have been half-baked and sparsely funded, but at least its central thrust served to reconfirm Canadian sovereignty.

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Mr. Trudeau's current plan, essentially a drilling ban, could stand to be bolstered.

It's entirely possible very bad environmental things will happen even with Canadian-led regulatory oversight. Without it, though, that outcome is effectively guaranteed.

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