Frosty diplomatic relations were thawing like Arctic ice as Norway reached a landmark deal with Russia this week over a 40-year-old Barents Sea boundary dispute, and Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon held cordial meetings Thursday with Russian officials in Moscow.
But the warming trend is unlikely to halt Ottawa’s face-off with Moscow over competing claims to a shelf of land that lies deep under the Arctic, and may decide the fate of as much of one-quarter of the Earth’s untapped oil and gas.
“This will be decided purely on the basis of the geology and international law,” said Michael Byers, an Arctic sovereignty specialist at the University of British Columbia. “The Law of the Sea Convention has incredibly detailed provisions that are entirely science-based.”
> Arctic Territory map
Cannon said his meetings with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, and renowned Russian Arctic explorer and envoy Artur Chilingarov, had been “productive,” and they had exchanged views on “issues of common interest” that Russia hopes could lead to cooperative ventures in the rapidly-melting zone.
That’s a sea change from just a year ago, when a grim Russian national security document declared that “in a competition for resources it cannot be ruled out that military force could be used to resolve emerging problems that could destroy the balance of forces near the borders of Russia and her allies.”
And Moscow earlier announced plans to stake out military bases along the Arctic frontier.
But Thursday, Cannon took a politely tough stance, telling reporters that he had “reinstated our government’s unwavering commitment to protecting Canada’s sovereignty, and emphasized that our territorial integrity remains non-negotiable.”
It was a cooler exchange than the one between President Dmitry Medvedev and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as they signed an accord in the Arctic naval port of Murmansk, while pledging to boost co-operation on oil and gas projects with “a different level of intensity.”
The Barents Sea has proven hydrocarbon reserves on both sides of the divide. But Russia would like to expand its reach to the Lomonosov Ridge, which stretches across the ocean floor between Greenland and Russia, and both Canada and Russia insist is linked to their continental shelves.
The winner would gain the right to develop more than 1 million square kilometers of potential oil and gas fields lying under the ocean.
Russia submitted a claim to the United Nations in 2001, but it was rejected for lack of evidence. It angered Ottawa six years later by dropping a canister bearing the Russian flag onto the ocean floor by submarine in a bold statement of intent.
Since then both Russia and Canada have mounted expeditions to plumb the depths of the Arctic Ocean in the hope of landing decisive data that will convince the UN-created International Seabed Authority of their ownership.
Under the Law of the Sea Convention countries can only exploit resources in a 200 nautical-mile economic zone. But that can be extended if they can prove the structure of the submerged continental shelf is “naturally prolonged” and has a structure similar to their own.
Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark and the United States all fringe the area, and hope to carve a share of the Arctic pie.
Meanwhile, a report from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado says that Arctic sea ice levels have reached their third-lowest level on record, potentially opening a new sea corridor that could ship oil and gas between Europe and North America.
The prospect has chilled environmental scientists, who fear that sea mammals could be endangered, and the fragile Arctic region jeopardized if oil and gas projects expand.
“What we are worrying about is what’s happening on a number of fronts in the Arctic,” said Oran Young, an expert in Arctic ecology at University of California, Santa Barbara. “There’s not only hydrocarbon development, but more shipping, fishing and tourism. Our concern is rising rapidly.”