been 10 years in the making, but the time has finally arrived.
The deadlines begin this
year for claims of maritime sovereignty made by coastal states throughout
the world to secure exploitation rights to millions of square kilometers
of seafloor and sub-seafloor resource base, including hydrocarbons
and other non-fuel materials.
For the past decade one
of the largest legitimate land-grabs in the history of maritime
space has been under way throughout all of the world's oceans. This
is because states have had 10 years since their ratification of
the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to
UNCLOS, which came into
power in 1994, has provided a regulatory framework for the definition
of rights responsibilities of coastal states on maritime areas.
An important issue in
all of this is defining the continental shelf — which will be the
subject of an exclusive session about the oil industry and maritime
exploration and exploitation rights that will be held in Dallas
during the AAPG Annual Meeting.
The session, offered
by the Southampton (UK) Oceanography Centre, will be held from 9:30
a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 21, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Cost for the session is $150.
Most of the 330 Articles
included in the UNCLOS are passively acquired responsibilities,
such as rights to innocent passage, preservation of the environment
and allowance of marine scientific research.
Article 76, however,
"Definition of the Continental Shelf," requires action from the
coastal state to secure maximum territorial advantage and resource
Article 76 provides technical
guidance in the process of claiming continental shelf beyond 200
nautical miles if there is a "natural prolongation" of the coastal
state's landmass outside of that distance.
The section describes
how the outer limit of the continental shelf may be defined according
to the position of the foot of the continental slope and either
geodetic measurements or patterns of sediment thickness variation
oceanward of it.
Even the most casual
glance across a bathymetry chart of the world's oceans margins suggests
many shallow areas of seafloor that might readily constitute such
"natural prolongations" by dint of the fact that they developed
along rifted passive margins during break up.
Also, volcanic ridges
— which form an intimate component of a continental margin — and
local sediment thickness anomalies, such as deltas and fans, are
likely to constitute "natural prolongations."
In total, these continental
shelf areas beyond 200 nautical miles cover an estimated 15 million
square kilometers — almost the same area as that calculated for
the sum of the world's coastal states Exclusive Economic Zones.
There is much work to
be done, however, before a successful claim can be completed.
Coastal states who consider
that they should claim shelf beyond 200 nautical miles need to prepare
a robust geological, geophysical and geomorphological case to support
the claim, directed to a UN-appointed commission (the Commission
on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, CLCS). These 21 technical
- Evaluate the basis
of any claim.
- Determine whether
it is in accordance with guidance provided by the UN Department
of the Oceans and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS).
- Make recommendations
to the secretary-general regarding acceptability of sovereignty
In terms of the oil industry
exploration/exploitation processes, the areas of potential "extended"
continental shelf are characterized by mostly "deep" or "ultra-deep"
water. Average water depths outside of the 200 nautical miles typically
reach four figures and can reach full ocean basin depths of more
than 4,000 meters rapidly.
But it is not necessarily
the water depth that is the limiting factor in exploration/exploitation
considerations — in many cases it is the distances between location
of site of interest and available infra-structure on land.
The issue that brings
sharp focus to the debate is the 10-year statutory period of time
following a coastal states ratification of the Convention, during
which fully supported and substantiated claims have to be presented
to the CLCS for examination.
It is not clear yet as
to any possible repercussions if a state fails to make that deadline,
but it is certainly a legal obligation that in some countries is
being used by authorities and some state oil companies as a lever
to release funds from central government to support research in
One such claim has been
submitted to the CLCS to date, and others are anticipated.
The potential loss of
resource by a coastal state if it was to fail to claim their continental
shelf beyond 200 nautical miles is huge. There also is a widespread
shortage of knowledge of the parameters involved in the development
of a claim — the data required, type of data analysis, acquisition
and processing, as well as a lack of availability of expertise and
experience in this field to synthesize and present cases for territorial
The Southampton Oceanography
Centre, UK, in conjunction with the United Kingdom Hydrographic
Office, has run a series of intensive technical training courses
over the past four years in order to bring diplomats, petroleum
geologists, exploration managers, technicians, hydrographers and
lawyers up to speed in issues of the Law of the Sea and especially
matters arising from Article 76.
Representatives of 46
countries investigating potential claims to continental shelf beyond
200 nautical miles on six continents have attended the courses over
Essential issues pertinent
to the hydrocarbon industry will form the core of the briefing session
set for during the AAPG Annual Meeting in Dallas.