U.S. will lose if it ignores Law of the Sea pact
The United States is the world’s leading maritime power but has tied its hands in the ability to act the part. Having the longest coastline and largest exclusive economic zone in the world, with jurisdiction over fisheries and mineral resources, we have potentially more to gain than any other nation by joining the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This is the comprehensive legal regime that regulates the oceans environment, meaning that UNCLOS is critical to what happens in seven-tenths of the planet as we know it.For more than two decades, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have supported ratification of UNCLOS, but the U.S. Senate has not acted. The Senate must act now to meet increasingly urgent national needs.By joining UNCLOS, the U.S. will forward longtime vital interests to secure freedom of navigation and also to control its coastal activities. UNCLOS protects military and commercial navigation and overflight, and passage through international straits, all essential for the armed forces and national security.UNCLOS is the framework for establishing claims to offshore resources and the deep seabed. The stakes are high. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are 90 billion barrels of recoverable oil north of the Arctic Circle, which constitutes 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil. On top of that, they estimate that the region contains 20 percent of Earth’s remaining undiscovered natural gas and 30 percent of the liquid natural gas. Alaska accounts for 20 percent of domestic oil production, but adherence to UNCLOS could increase drastically U.S. rights to seabed oil and natural gas, thereby securing our unparalleled exclusive economic zone of 3.36 million square miles.Who owns these riches and who decides? Today ownership remains in question but the decisions will be made to a large extent by state parties to the Law of the Sea Convention.Decisions are imminent, since the melting of Arctic ice makes the undersea natural gas, oil and minerals more accessible. New technologies for easier extraction of these resources fuel the race to acquire them.
Countries of the north are lining up for what may be the world’s final “land-grab.” Russian scientists planted their nation’s flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in August 2007. Russian papers claimed the start of a new “redivision” of the world. Although theatrical, the Russian move sparked counter-claims by other Arctic coastal states that will not escape the scrutiny of the UNCLOS regime.Until the U.S. joins the premier regime for the world’s oceans, we will be without a voice in decisions that affect major political, economic and security interests. We are not on an equal playing field with the other four Arctic coastal states in the opportunity to forward territorial shelf claims to the UNCLOS Commission on the Continental Shelf. The U.S. has no chance of representation on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, key to deciding jurisdictional issues, especially illegal fishing practices.Of particular urgency is U.S. representation on the International Seabed Authority, which decides on overlapping seabed mining claims and other issues. UNCLOS provisions on the seabed were revised in 1994 to meet all U.S. objections. Industry now has the opportunity to access deep seabed minerals on a non-discriminatory basis in accord with free-market principles and sound environmental stewardship.Ratification of UNCLOS in February 2010 is essential for the U.S. to have a seat at the ISA 16th annual session that commences in April 2010.In what may have been the last major policy paper of the Bush administration — National Security Presidential Directive 66 — the Senate was called upon to act promptly in favor of the Law of the Sea Convention. The reasons were to support the maritime mobility of armed forces, to secure sovereign rights over natural resources in marine areas, to promote U.S. interests in the environmental health of the oceans and to give the U.S. a seat at the table where our rights and interests are discussed and interpreted.The U.S. Senate today must do no less.Karen Erickson is dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Southern New Hampshire University.