World battle for seabed

The race to exploit the last unexplored wildernesses on Earth is intensifying. Survey ships have been dispatched across the oceans, and marine consultants hired. Submersibles are being lowered into inky depths to record underwater contours and take sedimentary samples.
Politicians around the globe, waving their countries’ flags, have boasted about securing oil, gas and mineral resources for future generations. The last opportunity to paint freshly demarcated territories in national colours on the map of the world will soon close.

So fevered has the race become that the United States has set aside initial ambivalence and is poised to join, in order to protect its interests.

However, these extensive sub-sea claims have been condemned by environmentalists as the last great colonial “land grabs” and a menace to undisturbed, submarine eco-systems. They have also been blamed for destabilising the international treaty regime protecting the Antarctic.

Yet the expansion of state sovereignty across the ocean floor beyond the traditional 200-mile limit does not constitute a breach of international maritime law. It is being conducted through the rarefied proceedings of the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

The UN convention on the law of the sea permits states to extract oil, gas and minerals from the seabed up to, and sometimes more than, 350 miles beyond their coastlines if they can demonstrate the “prolongation” of an adjoining continental shelf. Proof depends on various complex formulas, including tracing the 2 500-metre submarine contour, establishing the foot of the continental shelf and measuring sedimentary thicknesses.

There is a flurry of international activity as the clock counts down for the 50 or so countries that ratified the treaty for which the deadline for presenting submissions expires on May 13 2009.

So far, only eight submissions have been made, though some nations have announced the general location of where they intend to claim. But, it all illustrates the diversity and ambition of the flood of submissions expected on the desk of the commission in the coming 17 months.

Britain has so far lodged only one formal submission—a joint claim with Spain, France and Ireland, for a 31 000 square-mile tract of the ocean bed on the edge of the Bay of Biscay. It has been praised as a model of international cooperation.

Explaining the move, Ireland’s foreign minister, Dermot Ahern, recently set out the rationale for all claims. “We probably don’t have either the technologies or the economics of scale to work in such waters [now],” he observed. “But as energy prices continue to soar and our ability to tap resources is realised, our exploration rights to such a vast expanse of ocean will pay dividends for generations to come. We are effectively locking up control of thousands of square kilometres of unexplored seabed deep into the Atlantic for our children and their children.”

But the haphazard legacy of past colonial expansion and ancient rivalries between seafaring states suggests few claims will be resolved so smoothly.

Consequently, the tension is rising in foreign ministries around the world.

The United Kingdom (UK) has signalled, for example, that it intends to register claims on the Atlantic Ocean bed around Ascension Island, in the Hatton/Rockall basin, below waters surrounding the Falklands and South Georgia, and on the continental shelf sloping away from the British Antarctic Territory.

The UK was not the first nation to show an interest in Antarctic waters.

Australia and New Zealand have already made submissions. But, the revelation of Britain’s intent provoked both Chile and Argentina to reopen mothballed polar bases and declare their aim to expand their rights over the Antarctic seabed. The 1959 Antarctic treaty, to which these countries are signatories, was supposed to freeze all territorial disputes.

Scientists are also waking up to the threat of deep-water drilling and excavations polluting sensitive ecological niches and helping raise global temperatures.

Kristina Gjerde, high seas policy adviser to the World Conservation Union, says that climate change is helping to open up normally ice-bound waters to resource exploitation. “Once they get to the resources, that could cause even more global warming,” she warns.

It was territorial rivalries that set off headlines this summer when a manned Russian submersible planted a flag two miles under the North Pole.

It was a propaganda act to reinforce its 2001 submission to the CLCS that laid claim to much of the oil- and gas-rich Arctic Sea floor. It also claimed part of the Pacific Ocean bed.

Canada’s foreign affairs minister, Peter MacKay, responded by declaring: “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say: ‘We’re claiming this territory.’”

Small pinpricks of land breaking the surface of the ocean can potentially generate massive underwater claims. France has irked the neighbours of its overseas departments by a claim to thousands of square miles around New Caledonia in the Pacific. Nearby Vanuatu has warned that the claim has “serious implications and ramifications on Vanuatu’s legal and traditional sovereignty”.

Potential conflicts of interest are also likely to emerge in the Indian Ocean, as India has unresolved maritime borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The accelerating territorial race has galvanised political opinion in the US, where residual suspicion of the UN stalled America’s ratification.

In November, after the senate foreign relations committee voted to support the process, a US state department spokesperson, Tom Casey, declared: “It would serve our national security interests ... as well as our economic and energy interests. The treaty would secure US sovereign rights over extensive offshore natural resources, including substantial oil and gas resources in the Arctic. The extended continental shelf areas we stand to gain under the treaty are at least twice the size of California. Joining the convention is the only viable means of protecting and maximising our ocean-related interests.”

The deepest oil and gas drilling operations so far have been to 3km in the Gulf of Mexico. Those depths will soon be exceeded. With nations beginning to grasp the enormity of the energy resources at stake, it is not surprising that the murky ocean floor is becoming a battlefield of national interests.—Â

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