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.
The effects of climate change on the Arctic is the topic of the annual Arctic Forum, which began yesterday in Washington and is organized by Arctic Research Consortium of the United States.
Some of the scientists participating in the conference have helped Ms. McMurray’s bureau at the State Department and other government agencies and have already achieved a breakthrough.
In February, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released data suggesting that the foot of the continental slope off Alaska is more than 100 miles farther from the U.S. coast than previously thought.
The data were collected during a mapping expedition to the Chukchi Cap about 600 miles north of Alaska, conducted in August and September aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy.
“The melting helped us, and we went further than we thought we could,” Ms. McMurray said.
Larry Mayer, the expedition’s chief scientist and co-director of the Joint Hydrographic Center at UNH, is considered one of the top Arctic authorities in the world.
“The kind of full-coverage, high-resolution mapping we do provides critical insight for meeting the criteria of the Law of the Sea Convention, as well as the geologic history of the region,” he told SitNews, a local Alaska news site (www.sitnews.us), last month.
What lies beneath?
Both Ms. McMurray and Mr. Coakley noted that no one knows exactly the extent of the Arctic’s riches, but Mr. Coakley said that “there is reason to believe there could be substantial oil resources on the continental shelves.”
Ms. McMurray cited estimates of the U.S. Geological Survey that as much as “20 percent of the world’s energy supply” might lie in the Arctic. She also said that, according to a recent USGS report, there is more oil and gas in Greenland than anywhere else in the Arctic.
“We have spent the last few years working on the Arctic, obtaining data where we can, partnering with organizations that work there, building our geologic models and assessing the potential resources,” said Brenda Pierce, coordinator of the Energy Resources Program at the USGS.
Although the United States is cooperating with Canada, Greenland and its sovereign, Denmark, it has disputes with Russia, which has the world’s longest Arctic coastline.
In early 2002, a few months after Moscow submitted its Arctic claim to the U.N. commission, Washington filed a response, saying the Russian submission had “major flaws.”
“There are many unresolved issues for the simple reason that the U.N. commission has not yet given any recommendations, but only returned Russia’s submission back to Russia for it to collect further scientific information,” said Timo Koivurova, professor at the University of Lapland in Finland.
A major point of contention is the so-called Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,240-mile underwater formation, which Russia says is an extension of its shelf.
“Oceanic ridges cannot be claimed as part of the state’s continental shelf, and the U.S. argues in its reaction to Russia’s first submission that this is exactly what Russia is doing,” Mr. Koivurova said.
The Bush administration has disputes with its fellow Republicans in Congress as well. Its hands are tied when it comes to making any claims to the U.N. commission until the Senate ratifies the Law of the Sea accord.
Ms. McMurray said the issue has become “very partisan” and, “looking at the calendar” with a shortened congressional session because of the presidential election, Senate ratification this year is a very long shot.
The pact is an ambitious effort to codify and enforce the “rules of the road” on the high seas. It touches on coastal sovereignty rights, navigation for commercial and military vessels, environmental protections and guidelines for mining, fishing, energy and other businesses that tap the wealth of the world’s oceans.
President Reagan refused to submit the original 1982 text to the Senate, but treaty proponents say the changes U.S. negotiators won in subsequent talks greatly improved the text and would lock in major benefits for both the U.S. military and U.S. businesses.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last year blamed the long ratification delay on “ideological posturing and flat-out misrepresentations by a handful of amateur admirals.”
But Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, warned that the U.S. “standing in the world would suffer because” of the treaty.
“No matter how right we may be in our conduct on the high seas, this treaty will give our enemies the opportunity to stand in front of the United Nations and criticize the United States for its unwillingness to fulfill its treaty obligations,” he said in an opinion piece last fall in The Washington Times.