Water, Water Everywhere: France Eyes Massive Expansion of its Oceans

France already controls 11 million square kilometers of the world's oceans, second only to the US. Now they want more, demanding the equivalent of three Germanys all in one gulp. It's part of a rush to divvy up the world's oceans by this time next year.

Oil reserves are running out, gas prices are soaring. France's government is reacting to the dwindling energy supply much like Russia and Great Britain: the government is laying claim to vast stretches of the world's oceans. In France's case, the claims span the globe: from French Guyana in South America to Africa and across the Indian Ocean.

Paris would like to see its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) -- defined by international law as the ocean extending 200 nautical miles, or 370 kilometers, off a state's coasts -- expanded by almost a million square kilometers. That's three times as big as Germany, according to researcher Walter Roest of the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (IFRMER) in Brest.

Like many other states, the French government will be arguing in the next year that its geographic features in many cases extend far beyond the 370 kilometer zone. At most, that could mean an extension of its EEZ to 650 kilometers past the coastline. Right now, France claims more than 11 million square kilometers of the world's oceans -- the second largest in the world, after the United States.

May 13, 2009 is the deadline for countries to submit territorial claims to the United Nation's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). A handful of governments have been scrambling to prepare the way for claims down the road by sending out exploration missions and establishing outposts in remote parts of the globe.

France presented its first application to expand its economic zone to the CLCS in 2006. The request included the Bay of Biscay between France and Spain and the Celtic Sea, which France shares with Ireland and Great Britain. Last year, France followed that with an application to expand the waters of French Guyana and a host of African islands. The latest request concerns the Kerguelen Islands near Antarctica and the Crozet Islands, which lie hundreds of kilometers south of Madagascar.

France isn't alone. Fifty other states could potentially apply to expand their EEZs. In the medium and long term, they all hope to take advantage of untapped oil, mineral and natural gas resources under the ocean's depths.

The applicants are taking advantage of Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which allows states to establish a shelf limit beyond 370 kilometers. It's the same paragraph Russia used to justify its claim on a wide stretch of the North Pole. Russia argued that the so-called Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea mountain range that begins on land in Russia, reaches to the North Pole -- and therefore that the North Pole belongs to Moscow. Researchers were dispatched to the North Pole in a submarine last summer to prove the Kremlin's case.

Great Britain and Chile laid claims to parts of the Antarctic shortly thereafter, also citing Article 76 to support their position. The British government has begun to occupy a chunk of the Antarctic continent to create a claim to parts of the icy continent's seas. London also has designs on the waters around the Falklands and parts of the Bay of Biscay.

At least in the Antarctic, exploiting the continent's natural resources will prove difficult. In 1959, the United Kingdom and 11 other states signed the Antarctic Treaty. The agreement turns the continent into a sort of no-man's-land, a nature reserve protected in the name of peace and science. Pre-existing territorial claims were put on ice (so to speak) by common agreement.

France, though, has made a new claim: they want to fly the tricolor above a 400,000 square kilometer expanse of ice known as Adélie Land. But the Antarctic Treaty bans new territorial claims -- despite what the folks at the French Foreign Ministry might think.

agc/AFP

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