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Geology Matters in Law of the Sea

Ambiguities cloud definitions, boundaries

It’s an icy region, but when it comes to real estate the Arctic seafloor is hot.

Today, countries that rim the Arctic Ocean are working diligently to collect data that will help them to provide the evidence needed to extend their coastal territory further out on the continental shelf than the typical 200 nautical miles.

In fact, they’re eyeing the North Pole in some instances.

The countries involved in the effort are:

  • Canada.
  • Denmark.
  • Norway.
  • Russia.
  • United States.

In case you’re wondering why anyone would want to own the North Pole – aside from bragging rights – there’s potential treasure to be found in this region atop the world.

The Arctic may harbor as much as 22 percent of the technically recoverable resources in the world, according to a U.S. Geological Survey assessment.

The recently released results of the assessment revealed the area north of the Arctic Circle holds:

  • Estimated 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil.
  • 1,670 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas.
  • 44 billion barrels of technically recoverable natural gas liquids.

The magnitude of the estimated resources no doubt will provide even more impetus for the Arctic-bounding countries to make the case to extend their coastal territory, given they would also acquire sovereign rights over the resources of the seafloor and the subsurface.

Planting the Flag

Any territorial extensions into the Arctic will be granted via an orderly process in accordance with provisions of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which established mineral resource rights and responsibilities. The United States has signed the treaty but the Senate has yet to ratify.

The countries jockeying to extend their coastlines are allowed 10 years from the date of ratification of the treaty to submit a claim. The Russians rushed right in to ratify and followed up by submitting a claim eight years ahead of their deadline, according to Ron Macnab, Geological Survey of Canada (retired).

Last month Russian president Medvedev said Russia must formally set its borders in the Arctic region in the near future.

Norway also submitted early, and Canada and Denmark must submit by 2013 and 2014 respectively.

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It’s an icy region, but when it comes to real estate the Arctic seafloor is hot.

Today, countries that rim the Arctic Ocean are working diligently to collect data that will help them to provide the evidence needed to extend their coastal territory further out on the continental shelf than the typical 200 nautical miles.

In fact, they’re eyeing the North Pole in some instances.

The countries involved in the effort are:

  • Canada.
  • Denmark.
  • Norway.
  • Russia.
  • United States.

In case you’re wondering why anyone would want to own the North Pole – aside from bragging rights – there’s potential treasure to be found in this region atop the world.

The Arctic may harbor as much as 22 percent of the technically recoverable resources in the world, according to a U.S. Geological Survey assessment.

The recently released results of the assessment revealed the area north of the Arctic Circle holds:

  • Estimated 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil.
  • 1,670 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas.
  • 44 billion barrels of technically recoverable natural gas liquids.

The magnitude of the estimated resources no doubt will provide even more impetus for the Arctic-bounding countries to make the case to extend their coastal territory, given they would also acquire sovereign rights over the resources of the seafloor and the subsurface.

Planting the Flag

Any territorial extensions into the Arctic will be granted via an orderly process in accordance with provisions of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which established mineral resource rights and responsibilities. The United States has signed the treaty but the Senate has yet to ratify.

The countries jockeying to extend their coastlines are allowed 10 years from the date of ratification of the treaty to submit a claim. The Russians rushed right in to ratify and followed up by submitting a claim eight years ahead of their deadline, according to Ron Macnab, Geological Survey of Canada (retired).

Last month Russian president Medvedev said Russia must formally set its borders in the Arctic region in the near future.

Norway also submitted early, and Canada and Denmark must submit by 2013 and 2014 respectively.

The undisguised eagerness of the Russians was on full display last summer when they dropped a flag on the seafloor at the North Pole via a mini-sub – to the consternation of the other countries involved in the boundary issues.

Some critics labeled the flag planting a political stunt; Macnab views the prickly event with a more scientific eye.

“I think the people who did this were primarily interested in showing they have an Arctic capability that few if any other nations have,” he said. “They could actually send a submersible down in polar pack ice, do some work on the bottom and bring it back safely.

“To me, this is not a reason to castigate them for trying some illegal land claim,” Macnab said, “but there have been a lot of claims about the inappropriateness of this.

“Everyone should just take a Valium,” he said. “It’s not the opening shot of World War III.”

U.S. Activity

Despite not having ratified the treaty, the United States has been plenty busy mapping the Arctic seabed in preparation. Once it does ratify, the nation likely will be prepared to wrap its case in less than the allotted 10 years because it will have completed much of the expensive, necessary fieldwork.

In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy recently undertook its fourth Arctic seafloor mapping excursion since 2003. In addition to the ongoing bathymetric work, a separate leg of the excursion was implemented as a joint effort with Canada to conduct seismic work with the goal to measure sediment thickness.

“We’re mapping the Chukchi Cap,” said expedition chief Larry Mayer, who heads up the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s an area that potentially qualifies very well under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea Article 76 for natural prolongation and extension of the continental shelf.

“The fundamental criteria is you have to have a feature that is a natural prolongation from your territory – and you can demonstrate morphological continuity and perhaps geological continuity,” Mayer said. “Then you can extend your continental shelf.”

Mayer noted the treaty defines two ways to do this:

  • Find the foot of the slope – the definition provided for foot of slope is murky, he said, but it’s a place where there’s a maximum change in curvature – and you can go out from there 60 nautical miles.
  • Go to a place where the sediment thickness is 1 percent of the distance back to the foot of the slope.

“In the case of the Arctic,” Mayer said, “the sediment is so thick in the Arctic Basin that the 1 percent of the distance back to the foot of the slope will be way beyond the North Pole for every country.

“The treaty also says there are limits to how far you can go,” he added, noting that the limits are:

  • No further than 350 nautical miles from your coastline.
  • 100 nautical miles from the position of the 2,500-meter depth contour.

“In the northern Chukchi, the 2,500-meter contour plus 100 nautical miles is much further than the 350-nautical-mile line,” Mayer said. “So, on the Chukchi you can go way beyond 350 nautical miles.

“The treaty takes all the ambiguity of law and mixes it with the ambiguity of geology,” he said. “The result is all these ambiguous terms – for example, what does the ‘foot of the slope’ really mean?

“It uses all these geological terms and mixes them with legal terms – none of which has a clear cut definition.”

Mapping Challenges

Some of the scientific experts predict the Arctic could be ice-free by 2040. For now, however there’s plenty of the frozen stuff to pose a challenge for the mapping expeditions.

“The area is mostly covered by ice even in the summer,” Mayer said, “so you have to take an icebreaker in to map. We map with a multi-beam echo sounder, which is a huge million dollar thing mounted on the hull of the ship.

“It uses sound, and breaking ice is a noisy process,” Mayer said. “So it’s almost an incompatible task of breaking ice, which makes noise, and trying to listen for sound coming back at the same time.

“Last year there was less ice, which let us map further north,” Mayer said. “We found evidence for the foot of the slope further north than we thought originally.

“This has real ramifications for a U.S. claim, because everything is kind of based on where the foot of the slope is.”

Working in this challenging environment tends to be frustrating, expensive and time consuming. Consequently, there’s much incentive for the coastal states to work together and cooperate, according to Macnab.

Where science is concerned, it is noteworthy that there’s no sense of competition in this tedious coastal extension effort, according to Mayer.

“From a scientific perspective, it’s been a very cooperative effort,” he said. “There’s only one shape of the seafloor and only one sediment thickness, and it’s up to us to determine what it is and then let the diplomats and the lawyers divvy up the boundary issue. The science is separate.

“The Law of the Sea Treaty provides a wonderful rule of law for all this to happen in a nice and peaceful way.”

Worth the Effort?

Even so, there are frustrations – particularly on the part of Russia, Canada and Denmark. All three countries assert the extensive subsea Lomonosov Ridge is a natural prolongation of their territories. 

The Russians say they can lay claim to the Ridge as far, if not further, than the North Pole, Mayer noted.

Not so, say the Canadians and Danes, who have been working to establish that the feature is a natural prolongation of the combined Canadian and Greenland margin, according to Macnab.

“If that’s the case, they can meet the Russians halfway,” Mayer said, “and this becomes a boundary negotiation as opposed to a geologic discussion.”

Macnab concurred.

“If you look at the information on hand and apply the provisions of Article 76,” he said, “it makes sense that Russia would move along the Lomonosov Ridge from its direction, and Canada and Denmark would move to meet them somewhere in the middle.”

As for the potential prize of vast hydrocarbon finds in the region, Macnab takes a skeptic’s viewpoint.

“In the central part of the Arctic Ocean, not enough work has been done to determine if any oil is there and, if so, how much there is,” he said. “Most of the oil in the Arctic Ocean already located is on the continental shelf within the jurisdiction of the coastal states.”

This essentially is in line with the recent USGS assessment of undiscovered oil and gas in the Arctic Circle, which suggests most of the undiscovered resources likely are not under the North Pole but closer to shore (see related story, page 22).

“There may be oil,” Macnab said, “but the price would have to go further through the roof than now for it to become worthwhile.”

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