The United States is spending $5.6 million this year on scientific research in support of a claim to large amounts of oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean that it does not have the legal right to make.
The money is being spent to prove that the foot of the U.S. continental slope off Alaska’s coast extends beyond the 200-nautical-mile limit that any country can claim as part of its territory under the U.N. Law of the Sea treaty — which the U.S. Senate has never ratified.
“Because of [climate] changes, everyone wants to understand what the implications are,” said Claudia A. McMurray, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.
The recent ice-melting in the Arctic has made the region’s natural riches more accessible, and the race to lay claim to those resources is in full speed. But the politically charged U.S. debate over ratifying the agreement raises questions about the U.S. ability to keep up in the race.
Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway also are spending tens of millions of dollars to prove that large parts of the Arctic’s seabed are a “natural prolongation” of their territory.
“We have $5.6 million in the 2008 budget to assemble both the hardware and scientific expertise to do this investigation,” Ms. McMurray said. “We started a little bit later than other countries, but we have a big coastline, and there are some promising opportunities.”
Russia’s planting of its flag on the Arctic seafloor in August angered other countries, but experts say the only legal way to make a claim is through the U.N. Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf.
“Planting flags on the seafloor accomplishes nothing except for feeding the various nationalist beasts that seem to hunger for a return to the 18th century,” said Bernard Coakley, professor at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute.
To file a claim, however, a country must be a party to the Law of the Sea treaty, and the United States is not. President Clinton signed the treaty in 1994, and President Bush supports ratification, but fierce conservative opposition to the U.N. pact has blocked Senate approval, where a two-thirds majority is needed.
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea has long divided U.S. conservatives. About 155 nations have ratified the pact, and the treaty enjoys strong support from the U.S. military, as well as leading business, legal and environmental lobbies.
But intense opposition from conservative groups who fear the pact infringes on U.S. sovereignty has defeated a number of ratification drives in the Senate.
One-time Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, made a point of his opposition to the treaty during his campaign. Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain supported the pact in the past, but has recently suggested he would seek changes in the treaty.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican and supporter of the treaty, warned last week the United States stands to lose billions of barrels of oil in the Arctic if it remains outside the Law of the Sea accord.
“I can tell you, if we’re not willing to claim it, if we don’t step up to claim it, others will,” she said in a speech on the Senate floor.
Ms. McMurray said the Bush administration is “working very hard, from the president down,” on supporting research, and there will have to be “a continuous contribution to this effort” in the next several years.