Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty and its Untapped Energy Potential
Written by: Leila Khalid
Edited by: Justin Weir
The Canadian portion of the Arctic is a vital yet contentious area of land. Canada’s claim to the region has long been secure, but rests on its continuous occupation and control over the area (Spence, 2019). Considering the fact that this region accounts for over 40% of the country’s landmass, but contains only 100,000 sparsely distributed inhabitants, Canada’s claim to sovereignty there may not be so robust (Perez, 2020). As a result, fortifying its claim and working to develop the Arctic has been a high priority in Canada through the past few decades (Smyth & McIntosh, 2022). In the context of a rapidly warming globe, onlookers have begun considering the Arctic’s extremely high geopolitical and energy potential, increasing the incentive for Canada to utilize and defend its sovereign claim.
Though the entire planet is being affected by global warming, the Arctic is particularly vulnerable. Warming at four times the rate of the rest of the world, the Arctic’s sea ice has been melting rapidly, uncovering dark ocean surface water (Bamber, 2022). This has increased heat absorption, further accelerating warming in the region. For some, this vicious cycle appears profitable, depending on one’s interest in the Arctic. As sea ice continues to melt, previously unexplored oil and gas fields have been made accessible, and are estimated to account for 5.3% and 21.7% of global reserves, respectively (Borshchevskaia et al., 2023). As of 2020, the Arctic was estimated to be worth $281 billion, due to its abundance of fossil fuels, rare minerals, and food (Perez, 2020). It’s evident that Canada could stand to gain a lot from the region.
Canada’s Sovereign Claim to the Arctic
Source: Perez, 2020
However, this energy potential cannot be accessed without detrimental consequences. Extraction and combustion of massive amounts of potential fossil fuels present in the Arctic could have devastating environmental impacts, coupled with high-carbon emissions. Primarily, the risk of oil spills is a major concern to environmental protection organizations focused on the Arctic. Even under the best of circumstances, only about 40% of an oil spill can be cleaned and recovered through mechanical methods (Helton, 2022). In the Arctic, an oil spill is especially threatening, given that there is virtually no infrastructure or resources readily available to deploy in the case of an accident — oil spill response would take far longer to address than in normal circumstances (Borshchevskaia et al., 2023). Other response mechanisms, such as release of oil-eating microbes, would also be far less effective due to the region’s frigid temperatures (Husseini, 2018).
Along with oil spills, Arctic extraction poses other environmental threats. Marine mammals may be exposed to disruptive underwater noise that can severely affect their mating habits and navigation routes (WWF-CA, 2023). Not only is this harmful to marine species, but it also profoundly impacts Indigenous communities that depend on these animals for food and resources. There is also an increased risk of importing invasive species, as well as the problem of plant restoration technologies that are unadaptable for the Arctic environments (Borshchevskaia et al., 2023).
In response, Canada and the U.S. have issued a joint 5-year moratorium for new oil and gas licenses in the Arctic, beginning in 2016 (WWF-CA, 2020). The Canadian government revisited and reaffirmed this ban in 2019, ultimately prohibiting all oil and gas work in the Canadian Arctic for an indefinite amount of time (Pressman, 2023). Although controversial, environmental groups consider this an essential move. WWF Canada stated that “Canada is not ready for oil and gas drilling in our Arctic oceans,” and that it would be “an unacceptable risk” to allow these activities to continue (2020).
Meanwhile, it’s evident that other countries haven’t prioritized these environmental protections to the same extent. In fact, Russia extracts nearly 90% of its natural gas, and 10% of its oil from reserves in the Arctic (Borshchevskaia et al., 2023). To make matters worse, new commercial shipping routes are being drawn up in the Arctic, as sea ice continues to melt rapidly. These shipping routes are exciting prospects for those with investments in the Arctic, as they allow for more direct and efficient exportation of natural resources (Spence, 2019). In particular, the Northwest Passage (seen in figure below) was previously an unusable shipping route, but is now of great interest to actors like China and the U.S. Although Canada has long claimed sovereignty over this passage, several countries, including the U.S., claim it should be considered international waters (Nesheiwat, 2021). These territorial disputes, as well as the possible environmental impacts of resource extraction, are key reasons for Canada to reinforce its claim to the Arctic.
The Northwest Passage
Source: Arctic Portal, 2006
Moving forward, Canada is viewing its Arctic territory as a new frontier for renewable energy, particularly for Indigenous communities who are often left out of the green transition (WWF-CA, 2023). Currently, more than 170 remote Indigenous communities rely solely on diesel for their electricity needs, mainly due to its reliability in such harsh environments (Natural Resources Canada, n.d.). Through Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), several small-scale yet innovative clean energy projects are being rolled-out in the Arctic. Working in collaboration with Indigenous peoples, these projects include the development of biofuels from food waste generated in Nunavut, the creation of off-grid wind turbines, and the establishment of the Arctic Remote Energy Network Academy (ARENA), an initiative developed to help kickstart more local energy projects in the Canadian Arctic (Government of Canada, 2023).
As climate change propels more and more interest to the Arctic circle, Canada must leverage the remarkable amount of land under its jurisdiction to ensure that responsible development and renewable energy production prevail over exploitation. Given the potential for environmental damage or even catastrophe, protection of the Arctic will be a key part of Canada’s climate plan.
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