TORONTO – Canada intends to extend its seabed claims in the Arctic to include the North Pole in a bid to assert its sovereignty in the resource-rich region, the country's foreign affairs minister said Monday.
John Baird said the government has asked scientists to work on a future submission to the United Nations claiming that the outer limits of its continental shelf include the pole, which so far has been claimed by no one.
Canada last week applied to extend its seabed claims in the Atlantic Ocean, including some preliminary Arctic claims, but it wants more time to prepare a claim that would include the pole.
Asserting Canada's rights in the Arctic has been a popular domestic issue for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, though at least one expert on the issue described the planned claim as a long shot.
"We are determined to ensure that all Canadians benefit from the tremendous resources that are to be found in Canada's far north," Baird said.
Countries including the U.S. and Russia are increasingly looking to the Arctic as a source of natural resources and shipping lanes. The U.S. Geological Survey says the region contains 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of oil. If Canada's claim is accepted by the UN commission, that would dramatically grow its share.
Countries must submit proposals to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to request an extension of their nautical borders. Currently, under international law, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S._the five countries with territories near the Arctic Circle_are allotted 200 nautical miles from their northern coasts.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, exclusive claims can be vastly expanded for Arctic nations that prove that their part of the continental shelf extends beyond that zone.
Baird said Canada's submission last week set out the potential outer limits of the country's continental shelf in the Atlantic — a claim of about 1.2 million square kilometers. He said that's roughly the size of Alberta and Saskatchewan combined.
Canada's follow-up submission will include a claim to the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea mountain range between Ellesmere Island, Canada's most northern land mass, and Russia's east Siberian coast. That claim would extend Canada's claim 200 nautical miles beyond the North Pole.
The submission that Canada filed with the U.N. is essentially a series of undersea co-ordinates that map what the government claims is the country's extended continental shelf.
Baird said it's a mammoth task, and the government needs more time to complete the mapping in the Arctic and get its U.N. submission right.
"That's why 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," he said.
The U.N. submission is also political, said Michael Byers, an expert on Arctic and international law at the University of British Columbia.
"(Harper) does not want to be the prime minister seen publicly as having surrendered the North Pole, even if the scientific facts don't support a Canadian claim," Byers said. "What he's essentially doing here is holding this place, standing up for Canadian sovereignty, while in private he knows full well that position is untenable."
The UN submissions do not lead to a binding decision, but lay the groundwork for future country-to-country negotiations over competing territorial claims in the Arctic that could take years to resolve. Just checking the science on a claim likely will take five years, said Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert at the University of Calgary.
Byers said there isn't any particular rush for Canada to stake its claim for the North Pole, pointing out that such claims cover some of the most remote and harshest places on the planet, and commercial exploitation of resources is a long way off.
"We're talking about the center of a large, inhospitable ocean that is in total darkness for three months each year, thousands of miles from any port," he said. "The water in the North Pole is 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) deep and will always be covered by sea ice in the winter. It's not a place where anyone is going to be drilling for oil and gas.
"So it's not about economic stakes, it's about domestic politics."