ANCHORAGE, Alaska _ In the conflict between the United States and Canada over who owns a pie-shaped wedge of the Beaufort Sea off the Alaska-Yukon coast, it appears that what lies to the north of the wedge is the biggest wild card of all.
The dispute over the New Jersey-size slice of ocean directly northeast of Alaska is getting big attention lately. Drawing a protest from Canada, the state of Alaska recently attempted but failed to auction oil leases within the disputed area.
Canadians also protested the U.S. decision last year, made without their input, to put a moratorium on commercial fishing in a large swath of the Arctic that included the disputed area.
The Canadian government draws a line running straight north from the Alaska-Yukon border as its international boundary, which gives it control of the disputed area. The United States draws a line to the east, which gives it control.
What boosts the dispute's importance is that using either line would affect the countries' future claims to seafloor more than 200 miles offshore. This area, called the extended outer continental shelf, stretches far beyond the disputed zone. It's still being mapped, but is believed to hold vast oil and gas riches. Canada and other nations are preparing to claim ownership to portions of the extended shelf, but the United States hasn't announced anything yet.
No one even knows yet which parts of the seafloor hold the resources, and the two countries need to gather more scientific information, said Ashley Roach, a retired U.S. State Department official.
"All of us, Canadians and Americans, are going to face some difficult choices in resolving the dispute," said Tony Penikett, a former Yukon premier.
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