The Last Gold Rush Coastal Nations Grab for Ocean Floor Riches

Vast quantities of resources may be hiding beneath the ocean floor. But who owns it? Countries on the coasts are laying claim to ever larger chunks of seawater. But many of the claims are disputed.


It is a dim January day in 2010. Patrol boats with ice-resistant hulls and flying Canada's maple leaf from their sterns are advancing into the desolate worlds of rock and ice north of Hudson Bay. They are there to drop off a group of elite troops known as Ice Rangers, soldiers trained for combat above the Arctic Circle. The CBC television network is reporting live from the largest military exercise in Canadian history. Soon thereafter, 15 million people watch the report entitled "Is this the Beginning of the Next Cold War?" on YouTube.

The other nations bordering the Arctic follow suit. The Danish navy deploys vessels off the coast of Greenland, Russian frigates plow through drifting ice along the melting fringes of the polar ice cap, and the United States builds a gigantic naval base at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Washington is officially calling it a new bridgehead in the war on terror. But the Americans' real objective is to aggressively assert their claims to undersea minerals, including natural gas and oil. The parties are fighting over polar claims before the International Maritime Court in Hamburg, each presenting its own expert reports on the situation. The oil companies are collecting their facts and have begun test-drilling -- with military protection. Instead of securing binding legal title, the nations involved are continually beefing up their troop contingents to protect drilling platforms.

This scenario, according to the Global Business Network (GBN), a respected San Francisco-based consulting firm, could describe the struggle over the mineral-rich ocean floor in the near future. And although it is just that -- a scenario -- it does seem depressingly realistic.

The Last Global Act of Colonization

For many years now, nations have been developing strategies to gain access to the immense resources beneath the ocean floor, hoping to devise the best tactic to assert and expand claims to ownership as well as to prevent other nations from forcibly asserting their own claims.

Last week, ministers from Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and the United States met in Greenland to explore ways to prevent a "wild race for the North Pole," as the meeting's Danish host, Per Stig Møller, called it. "If one considers the minerals hidden in the Arctic depths," Møller said, "and the current oil price, we'll see that a great deal of money is at stake."

It is still a rivalry that has not made many headlines, and the vessels involved today are still little more than a handful of research ships measuring how far the continental shelf -- that is, the shallower ocean floor bordering coastlines -- extends out into the ocean. The continental shelf extends for an average distance of 74 kilometers (46 miles) from coastlines worldwide. But in some cases it juts out significantly further. The Siberian Shelf, for example, extends 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) offshore. The edge of a continental shelf is always followed by the continental slope.

Depth readings and rock samples corresponding to rock found on the mainland are needed to demonstrate the breadth of a continental shelf. Any nation claiming an especially large shelf zone must submit the necessary evidence to the United Nations. This is the only way a nation can establish a claim to expand its territorial waters.

Contested areas in the globe's "final fronties."

Contested areas in the globe's "final fronties."

The UN agency that deals with such claims is the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) based in New York. Although it maintains a staff of experts from a wide range of scientific disciplines, such as hydrologists, geologists and geographers, the CLCS has no legal staff. This presents a problem, especially when one considers that the last global act of colonization is at issue. One hundred and twenty-three years after the Berlin Conference, at which Africa was carved up, the community of nations is gearing up to parcel off what remains -- and all its treasures.

Who Owns the Ocean?

All of this revolves around a central, overriding question: Who will own the oceans in the future, or at least their wide peripheries? The answer depends in large part on the extent of the continent shelf that maritime states can claim, that is, on how far their portion of the continental shelf extends underwater. And, once again, the industrialized nations -- which have set the tone since the Berlin Conference in 1885 -- are holding the best cards. They are in the best position to pay the cost of research needed to successfully back their claims.

As a rule, all maritime states are entitled to claim an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles (370.4 kilometers). Within this zone, the countries enjoy sovereign rights, meaning that they own everything that crawls, swims or is deposited there. If a nation can prove that its continental shelf protrudes farther out to sea, the CLCS can grant it an exploitation zone of 350 nautical miles (648 kilometers) or even more, in special cases.

This opportunity has prompted some governments to go to great lengths to expand their zones. A parliamentary vice president, for example, who is willing to be submerged in polar waters on behalf of his country is a novelty in world politics. On Aug. 2, 2007, the Russian politician Artur Chilingarov, 66, boarded the "Mir-1" diving capsule from on board the Akademik Fyodorov research ship and descended to the floor of the Arctic Ocean to a depth of 4,261 meters (13,980 feet). Light from the craft's floodlights skipped across yellowish sludge. There wasn't a living creature in sight.

The capsule began to creak under the pressure of vast amounts of water, "as if the sea wanted to crush us," a member of the expedition team later said. But the crew courageously completed its mission. A robotic arm deposited a small, acrylic Russian flag attached to a stand made of rust-proof titanium onto the floor of the Arctic Ocean.

Maritime zones according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Maritime zones according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

'Always Russian'?

When the explorers returned home, Russia's then President Vladimir Putin met with them at Novo-Ogaryovo, his residence outside Moscow, where he announced that such expeditions are "important, not just for the sake of science, but also in geopolitical terms, as seen from the perspective of Russia's interests in this part of the world."

"The Arctic has always been Russian and remains Russian today," the white-bearded patriot Chilingarov added. "If we do not stake out our claim to the northern ocean floors, others will." Chilingarov, an oceanographer and a member of Putin's party, was promptly awarded the title "Hero of the Russian Federation" and named a member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences.

His country is claiming a total of 1.2 million square kilometers (463,200 square miles) of ocean floor, which is believed to hold billions of tons of oil and natural gas. Moscow bases its claim on Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which defines the term "continental shelf," and it is hoping -- optimistically -- to be awarded a 350-nautical-mile zone.

But Moscow's chances are not good. Its first application in 2002 was rejected on the grounds that the Russians had not provided data sufficient to support their claim. But the country has not backed down. "Our presence in the Arctic should be obvious to everyone," said Rear Admiral Andrei Tkatchov. Soon strategic bombers were flying missions over the Arctic Ocean, like thundering harbingers of the conflict outlined in the GBN's scenario. And soon the newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta was invoking images of a "battle for the Arctic."

'A Race to the Final Frontiers'

Any member of the UN convention that wishes to revise it territorial zone must submit the relevant petition within 10 years of ratifying the treaty. For 122 countries, this deadline is May 13, 2009.

A government can also submit its requests in advance of the deadline, or it can submit interim requests. The New York commission accepts and processes such petitions twice a year. But the great debate over who owns the oceans has only just begun, and it has begun less than a year away from the date when dozens of petitions will arrive at the CLCS's office.

Australia provided the initial impetus. The government in Canberra signed the UN treaty in 1982, while at the same time ratifying its own maritime agenda. Like his predecessor, the country's current energy minister, Martin Ferguson, is convinced that the murky depths of the oceans are "a goldmine of unimagined proportions."

This has encouraged other countries -- and especially France -- to launch a surveying offensive. Walter Roest, director of the Paris-based Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER), calls it a "race to the final frontiers." But the UN does not provide arbitration for disputes, and instead such matters are left to lawyers and diplomats. Their experts, however, confirm -- partly through the analysis of rock samples -- whether an underwater plateau does in fact extend as far as a country would like. If the decision is in the affirmative, any other country can file an objection within three months, in which case the dossier is returned and all claims remain frozen.


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