It will be a long, involved process to establish Canada’s claim to the Arctic seabed outside our 200-mile nautical limit and there is a risk of politics interfering, according to an expert on strategic studies.

Canada filed its claim for a portion of the continental shelf under the Arctic Ocean with the UN Conventional on the Law of the Sea on Friday.  The problem is that other countries, including Russia, Denmark and Norway, are making the same claims to parts of the seabed that could be a rich source  of resources.

Canada has not revealed exactly how much of the seabed it has claimed – but it has invested in extensive scientific research to determine how far the continental shelf extends toward the North Pole and beyond.

Today Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said that Canada will make a claim to the North Pole and the Atlantic and Arctic seabeds, and it plans to continue its scientific study around the Arctic seabed claim.

“The whole idea of extending a country’s right over a continental shelf is  a brand-new invention,” Rob Huebert, associate director at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, said in an interview with CBC’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange.

Long process of negotiation

Rob Huebert

Rob Huebert, associate director at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, says without the UN process, there would be a free-for-all in a race for resources. (CBC)

All the parties involved have said they will follow international law and they’ve agreed that science must underlie the process. One of the roles of the UN commission will be to doublecheck the science that each country has submitted and then there is much diplomacy and negotiation ahead.

Then all the parties making claims have pledged to negotiate in good faith and  in a timely manner over this vast swath of territory, most of it covered with ice yearround.

“We know that you can have the best kinds of international law, best processes set out, but politics often intervene and that’s of course, what everyone is most concerned about in this contest,” Huebert said.

The issue of rights to the region was highlighted in 2007, when a titanium capsule with the Russian flag was planted on the Arctic Ocean seabed under the North Pole.

Impact of climate change

It’s not the North Pole that everyone is interested in, Huebert said, but an area that may yield resources that become increasingly accessible as climate change leaves the water open for longer periods.

“The major thing is this allows Canada to establish what its extended continental shelf is under the Arctic. Under the terms of the convention that allows us to do this, it’s really about the resources of our soil and subsoil. In other words our oil and gas,” he said.

“We don’t know what’s there right now, but there’s a lot of speculation that it could be substantial,” he added.

Huebert said it would be foolish for environmental groups to object to this process on the grounds that oil and gas exploration should not take place in Arctic waters.

Too many other countries want a piece of Arctic resources and Canada can only protect the region if its claim holds up, he said.

If you don’t establish boundaries over who owns the soil and subsoil, then what happens when some of these other countries that are a very interested in the region – like China, South Korea, Japan, would you then start having a free-for-all,” he said.

The water above the continental shelf outside Canada’s 200-mile limit remains international waters and open to shipping and fishing by other countries, he warns.