Ratification of the ‘Law of the Sea’ treaty would redraw the maps
BARROW, Alaska- The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420 ft. icebreaker homeported in Seattle, Wash., breaks ice in support of scientific research in the Arctic Ocean. The Healy is mid-way through a four month deployment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Prentice Danner.
Alaskans are living in a time period to see one of the last redrawings of the world maps, when “more is known about the surface of Mars than about the Arctic Ocean’s deep.”
That quote came from Scott G. Borgerson, an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard in a essay titled “Arctic Meltdown.” He goes on to say, “...but early returns indicate that the Arctic could hold the last remaining undiscovered hydrocarbon resources on earth.”
Impending rising climate temperatures and the thawing of the Arctic ice reveal a vast amount of energy/mineral deposits on the Arctic Ocean floor. For the first time in history, the continental shelf near the North Pole may be accessed due to modern drilling techniques. A U.S. geological survey announced Thursday that it estimates a reserve of between 40-160 billion barrels of oil north of the Arctic Circle.
But a question framed more and more is: who owns it?
What is happening at the top of the world might be best be compared to a new Klondike strike, with interested parties rushing to stake their claims.
Homer Rep. Paul Seaton, who was able to get a resolution passed in the Alaska Legislature this session, is one of the people helping to establish a treaty that would help claim ownership.
“The State of Alaska has much to gain from controlling development in the waters adjacent to our 200 mile EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and much to lose if we are the only Arctic nation not to extend our ocean boundaries,” said Seaton, at a hearing March 19. His resolution stating that Alaskans support the idea of ratifying the treaty passed in the House with 34 in favor and 4 opposed and then passed the Senate 15 to 2.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is a strong advocate of ratifying the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is set to receive attention in Congress this summer, “I do believe that this is in our nation’s best interest. The big challenge that we have in front of us is securing floor time for a debate hearing in the summer,” Murkowski said in a phone interview.
The North Pole is considered an international site and is administered by the International Seabed Authority. Yet, if a country can prove its underwater shelf is an extension of its continental border, then it can claim an economic zone based on those findings.
According to the Law of the Sea treaty, coastal countries have the right to control access to the belt of shoreline along their coasts, unless the belt is less than 12 nautical miles.
With regards to the Arctic Ocean, the possible benefactors of the treaty are Norway, Denmark, Greenland, Russia, Canada and the United States. If a country ratifies the Law of the Sea, they have a 10-year period to make claims to extend its nautical boundary. In March, Norway became the first nation to win control of an Arctic territory, when the UN commission finished its review of Oslo’s claims giving Norway the right to exploit resources north of Svalbard, even though that region lies south of the pole.
As for other countries, Canada and Denmark are working on their Arctic surveys together, trying to prove that the Lomonosov ridge, (a polar territory half the size of Western Europe, which reaches across the Arctic and is the basis of Russia’s claim for the pole) extends to their territories. Canada and the United States are also working together, surveying the continental shelf north of Alaska and the Yukon.
While the United States has yet to ratify the treaty, many Democrats and Republicans are urging the ratification, including Murkowski. She called on the committee to engage the White House and urged the Obama administration to “strongly support” Law of the Sea ratification.
“This is critical so that we are not subject to the whims of other nations on other seas,” Murkowski told the Homer Tribune. “In Alaska, the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley, is mapping on the outer coast, claiming an area the size of California, that is substantial, and the Russians are filing their claim to a third of the Arctic. Unless we are apart of the ratification we can’t lay claim to anything.”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, that made last week’s announcement of resource estimates, substantial amounts of gas may be found in Alaska, Canada and Greenland, but the undiscovered gas resource is concentrated in Russian territory. “Its development would reinforce the pre-eminent strategic position of that country,” the survey said. Russia ratified the treaty in 1997 but the UN commission recommended that Russia submit a “revised submission on the Arctic,” which Moscow has yet to do.
“Diplomatic gridlock could lead the Arctic to erupt in an armed mad dash for its resources,” Borgerson warned in his essay.
In 2007 the Russians created an international stir when two mini-submarines travelled under the North Pole taking mineral samples and planting a Russian flag.
Most Arctic countries such as Canada are determined to work peacefully with other nations on their claims. That being said, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon added, “Canada is an Arctic power, and our government understands the potential of the north. Therefore, when and if necessary, this government will not hesitate to defend Canadian Arctic sovereignty, and all of our interests in the Arctic.”
Canada plans to protect its Arctic sovereignty with the future deployment of a fleet of Arctic patrol ships, a deep-water docking facility at Baffin Island, an Arctic military training centre and the expansion of the Canadian Rangers, a northern patrol made up largely of Inuit citizens.
Murkowski uses the analogy of a “global chess game” currently being played out in the Arctic. The United States has “a serious shortage of pieces,” she said. In regards to icebreakers, for example, the U.S. has two in operation compared to Russia who has 18, Finland has seven, Canada six, and even China has one, with hopes to mine the waters if they remain international.
This summer, Coast Guard missions will resume under the name “Arctic Domain Awareness flights,” including some guardsmen from Homer.
Their job is testing capabilities, identifying challenges, surveying sea ice and monitoring vessel traffic in U.S. Arctic Waters.
“We must understand the Homeland Security context in the Arctic,” said Rear Adm. Gene Brooks, commander of 17th Coast Guard District, “what risks certain vessels pose to the maritime community and infrastructure, the Arctic environment, and Native Alaskan culture and lifestyle.”
Mining in the Arctic also raises concerns about enforcement of environmental rules. Some nation’s standards are higher than others.
Environmental experts are warning there’s a lot to lose. A new body of regulations would need to be hammered out by Arctic nations.
“Regulations are important because they help to control the environmental impact: the risk of oil spills, routine discharge, drill muds, discharge-produced oil as well as seismic exploration which has negative effects on marine animals and fish,” said Lisa Speer, Director of the International Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “because the Arctic ecosystem is very cold and slow growing it is very vulnerable, right now we have no spill technology in broken ice.”
Timing is important, Murkowski said, and the first step is to ratify the treaty.
“We can’t participate laying down rules and protocol unless we are participants. Right now we are not sitting at the table.”
U.S. geological survey reveals plethora of natural gas and oil in Arctic