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Seabed scramble: putting it all under ice

Published by MAC on 2007-08-15

Seabed scramble: putting it all under ice

15th August 2007

"This will probably be the last big shift in ownership of territory in the history of the earth."

That's one recent comment on what many will regard as an unseemly race for seabed minerals, in which the most powerful nations will come out on top - as they have done during centuries of plunder of the earth's crust.

The Bush regime has said that it's not competing with Russia and Canada to lay claim to the riches beneath the melting Arctic ice cap, but it's clearly now trying to extend the definition of its continental shelf in order to do precisely that.

After Russia and Canada, US Ship Headed for Arctic

PlanetArk US

14th August 2007

WASHINGTON - A US Coast Guard cutter is headed to the Arctic this week on a mapping mission to determine whether part of this area can be considered US territory, after recent polar forays by Russia and Canada.

The four-week cruise of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy starts Friday and aims to map the sea floor on the northern Chukchi Cap, an underwater plateau that extends from Alaska's North Slope some 500 miles (805 km) northward.

This is the third such US Arctic mapping cruise -- others were in 2003 and 2004 -- and is not a response to a Russian mission this month to place a flag at the North Pole seabed, or a newly announced Canadian plan for an Arctic port, US scientists said.

"This cruise was planned for three years and we've had the earlier cruises; this is part of a long and ongoing program, not at all a direct response," said Larry Mayer of the University of New Hampshire, who will be on the voyage.

So why are the countries with Arctic coastlines all heading northward now?

Under the UN Law of the Sea treaty, every coastal state that has the potential to claim some part of the Arctic's undersea mineral wealth must make a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

The United States is not now a party to the sea treaty, but Mayer and Andy Armstrong, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, held out hope that Washington might join.

Armstrong, who will also be aboard the US cutter, acknowledged that this cruise will "map the location of features that would have a role in the US extension of the continental shelf."

Most of the area the scientists want to map will be covered in ice, even in the northern summer. They will use an echo sounder that bounces many bits of sound in a swath across the sea floor, Mayer said by telephone.

"We don't map just a single spot beneath the vessel," Mayer said. "We can map a wide swath beneath the vessel in relatively high resolution."

The mission will look for features specified by the treaty, including the place where the slope turns into the flat plain of the deep sea bottom, Armstrong said on the same phone call.

Coastal states have rights to resources of the sea floor of their continental shelves. Under the Law of the Sea, a country gets 200 nautical miles (370 km) of continental shelf automatically but may extend that if it meets certain geologic criteria, the oceanic administration said in a statement.

The Bush administration wants Senate consent to join the Law of the Sea convention, which would give the United States the same rights as other treaty parties to protect coastal and ocean resources.

Story by Deborah Zabarenko


FEATURE - Russia's Seabed Flag Heralds Global Ocean Carve-Up

PlanetArk NORWAY

15th August 2007

OSLO - A Russian flag on the seabed beneath the ice of the North Pole is among the few signs that states are waking up to a 2009 deadline for what may be the last big carve-up of maritime territory in history.

By some estimates, about 7 million sq km (2.7 million sq miles) -- the size of Australia -- could be divided up around the world with so far unknown riches ranging from oil and gas to seabed marine organisms at stake.

Only eight claims have been made although about 50 coastal states are bound by a May 13, 2009, deadline for submissions under a UN drive to set the now vague outer limits of each country's sea floor rights under a 1982 convention.

"We are clearly behind schedule," said Peter Croker, a senior Irish official who is the outgoing chair of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which examines coastal states' submissions.

"There's quite a lot at stake. But there has been a bit of inertia," he said.

Russia, Australia, France and Brazil are among the few to have made claims. Most spectacularly, Moscow announced this month that explorers had planted a rust-free Russian tricolour beneath the North Pole in waters 4,261 metres (13,980) deep.

Under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, coastal states own the seabed beyond existing 200 nautical mile zones if it is part of a continental shelf of shallower waters.

Some shelves stretch hundreds of miles before reaching the deep ocean floor, which is owned by no state. The rules aim to fix clear geological limits for shelves' outer limits but are likely to lead to a tangle of overlapping claims.


"This will probably be the last big shift in ownership of territory in the history of the earth," said Lars Kullerud, who advises developing states on submissions at the GRID-Arendal foundation, run by the UN Environment Programme and Norway.

"Many countries don't realise how serious it is."

Yannick Beaudoin, who also works at GRID-Arendal, said: "2009 is a final and binding deadline. This allows you to secure sovereignty without having to fight for it."

The biggest controversies look likely to occur in regions where countries ring water, such as the South China Sea or the Arctic Ocean.

Isolated specks on the map, such as Easter Island or Ascension Island, could end up owning vast tracts of seabed. Off Africa, Madagascar may have a strong claim to a shelf stretching far south towards Antarctica.

Sorting out rights to minerals, geothermal energy or marine organisms far from the coast is becoming ever less academic as technology advances -- modern oil rigs can drill in water 10,000 feet (3,048 metres) deep.

Moscow's North Pole stunt, with explorers planting a flag with a mechanical arm from a submersible, was denounced by some other Arctic countries as a crude land grab.

Russia says a ridge under the Arctic Ocean makes the pole Russian, even though the coast of Siberia is 2,000 km (1,200 miles) away. Greenland, administered by Denmark which also says the pole is Danish, and Canada are at the other end of the same ridge.

"Other coastal states have as good a case as the Russians," said Lindsay Parson, an expert on continental shelf law at the University of Southampton in England.


Croker said it was an "open question" whether any state could back up a case for claiming the North Pole.

The polar dispute is about more than bragging rights to ownership of what many reckon is Santa Claus's home -- by some official US estimates, the Arctic may hold a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.

"Companies can now exploit oil and gas in deeper and deeper waters," Parson said. "The more you know about resources the harder it is to be friendly in sharing the seabed."

No firm is able to drill anywhere near the North Pole, but global warming may make the region more accessible.

Drilling group Transocean says its Discoverer Deep Seas holds the world depth record for oil and gas drilling, set in 2003 at 10,011 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We are building four new enhanced Enterprise-class drill ships (in South Korea) that will be able to work in water depths of 12,000 feet and drill wells 40,000 feet deep," said Guy Cantwell, spokesman for Transocean.

Any state missing the 2009 deadline risks losing UN recognition of the claim. Countries that have not yet ratifed the Law of the Sea Convention, including the United States, are not bound by the 2009 deadline.

The UN Commission cannot decide on overlapping claims, merely refer them back to governments to sort out -- a process likely to take years, or decades. Any extended rights will apply only to the seabed, not to fish stocks.

Experts say an extension of fishing limits to 200 nautical miles in the 1970s, the last big change of the ocean map, caused barely any conflicts. Britain and Iceland fought "cod wars", but with few casualties in clashes between frigates and trawlers.

Offshore disputes between neighbours such as Iran and Iraq are generally about resources closer to land.

Croker said the deadline might even promote cooperation.

"It could be a trigger for states to sit down and try to sort out these issues," he said, noting that Spain, France, Ireland and Britain had made a joint submission covering the Bay of Biscay. "It can work in a positive way."

Norway, one of the few countries to have made a submission, said it cooperated closely with neighbours such as Russia and Iceland. "We have shared our data at expert levels," said Rolf Einar Fife of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

Story by Alister Doyle



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