Sea of Troubles
By Owen Bowcott
The UK Guardian
December 5, 2007
Nations are queueing up to claim vast tracts of the seabed for the rich oil, gas and mineral deposits they hold. But international conflict and ecological disaster could also be in the pipeline…
The race to exploit the last unexplored wildernesses on Earth is intensifying. Survey ships have been dispatched across the oceans, and marine consultants hired. Submersibles are being lowered into inky depths to record underwater contours and take sedimentary samples. Politicians around the globe, waving their countries' flags, have boasted about securing oil, gas and mineral resources for future generations. The last opportunity to paint freshly demarcated territories in national colours on the map of the world will soon close.
So fevered has the race become that the US has set aside initial ambivalence and is poised to join, in order to protect its interests.
However, these extensive sub-sea claims have been condemned by environmentalists as the last great colonial "land grabs" and a menace to undisturbed, submarine ecosystems. They have also been blamed for destabilising the international treaty regime protecting the Antarctic.
Yet the expansion of state sovereignty across the ocean floor beyond the traditional 200-mile limit does not constitute a breach of international maritime law. It is being conducted through the rarefied proceedings of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).
The UN convention on the law of the sea permits states to extract oil, gas and minerals from the seabed up to, and sometimes more than, 350 miles beyond their coastlines if they can demonstrate the "prolongation" of an adjoining continental shelf. Proof depends on various complex formulas, including tracing the 2,500-metre submarine contour, establishing the foot of the continental shelf and measuring sedimentary thicknesses.
For around 50 countries that ratified the treaty when first published, including the UK, the deadline for presenting submissions to the body expires on May 13, 2009 - hence the international flurry of activity as the clock counts down.
So far, only eight submissions have been made, though some nations have announced the general location of where they intend to claim. But it all illustrates the diversity and ambition of the flood of submissions expected on the desk of the commission in the coming 18 months.
Britain has so far lodged only one formal submission - a joint claim with Spain, France and Ireland, for a 31,000 square-mile tract of the ocean bed on the edge of the Bay of Biscay. It has been praised as a model of international cooperation.
Explaining the move, Ireland's foreign minister, Dermot Ahern, recently set out the rationale for all claims. "We probably don't have either the technologies or the economics of scale to work in such waters [now]," he observed. "But as energy prices continue to soar and our ability to tap resources is realised, our exploration rights to such a vast expanse of ocean will pay dividends for generations to come. We are effectively locking up control of thousands of square kilometres of unexplored seabed deep into the Atlantic for our children and their children."
But the haphazard legacy of past colonial expansion and ancient rivalries between seafaring states suggests few claims will be resolved so smoothly. Consequently, the tension is rising in foreign ministries around the world.
The UK has signalled, for example, that it intends to register claims on the Atlantic Ocean bed around Ascension Island, in the Hatton/Rockall basin, below waters surrounding the Falklands and South Georgia, and on the continental shelf sloping away from the British Antarctic Territory.
The UK was not the first nation to show an interest in Antarctic waters. Australia and New Zealand have already made submissions. But the revelation of Britain's intent provoked both Chile and Argentina to reopen mothballed polar bases and declare their aim to expand their rights over the Antarctic seabed. The 1959 Antarctic treaty, to which these countries are signatories, was supposed to freeze all territorial disputes.
Scientists are also waking up to the threat of deep-water drilling and excavations polluting sensitive ecological niches and helping raise global temperatures.
Kristina Gjerde, high seas policy adviser to the World Conservation Union, says that climate change is helping to open up normally ice-bound waters to resource exploitation. "Once they get to the resources, that could cause even more global warming," she warns.
It was territorial rivalries that set off headlines this summer when a manned Russian submersible planted a flag two miles under the North Pole. It was a propaganda act to reinforce its 2001 submission to the CLCS that laid claim to much of the oil- and gas-rich Arctic Sea floor. It also claimed part of the Pacific Ocean bed.
Canada's foreign affairs minister, Peter MacKay, responded by declaring: "This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say: 'We're claiming this territory'."
Small pinpricks of land breaking the surface of the ocean can potentially generate massive underwater claims. France has irked the neighbours of its overseas departments by a claim to thousands of square miles around New Caledonia in the Pacific. Nearby Vanuatu has warned that the claim has "serious implications and ramifications on Vanuatu's legal and traditional sovereignty".
Potential conflicts of interest are also likely to emerge in the Indian Ocean, as India has unresolved maritime borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The accelerating territorial race has galvanised political opinion in the US, where residual suspicion of the UN stalled America's ratification. In November, after the Senate foreign relations committee voted to support the process, a US state department spokesman, Tom Casey, declared: "It would serve our national security interests ... as well as our economic and energy interests. The treaty would secure US sovereign rights over extensive offshore natural resources, including substantial oil and gas resources in the Arctic. The extended continental shelf areas we stand to gain under the treaty are at least twice the size of California. Joining the convention is the only viable means of protecting and maximising our ocean-related interests." [THIS IS PURE UNSUBSTANTIATED NONSENSE - THE TREATY IS NOT NECESSARY TO SECURE SOVEREIGN CLAIMS TO OFFSHORE GAS RESOURCES]**
The deepest oil and gas drilling operations so far have been to 10,011 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. Those depths will soon be exceeded. With nations beginning to grasp the enormity of the energy resources at stake, it is not surprising that the murky ocean floor is becoming a battlefield of national interests.
The potential wealth of mineral, oil and gas resources hidden beneath the ocean floors on extended continental shelves around the world is vast and largely uncharted.
And with fuel and commodity prices hitting record highs in recent years - amid fears that known reserves on land and under inshore waters are being swiftly depleted - attention is shifting to the deeper seabed.
Environmentalists are inevitably concerned about damage to poorly explored ecosystems where plants and animals may be highly sensitive to small changes in temperature.
Although much of the ocean floor is still beyond current technical limits for commercial drilling, advances are being made every year.
One of the areas of contention, for example, is the Hatton-Rockall basin in the Atlantic west of Scotland, where four countries - the UK, Ireland, Iceland and Denmark - are vying for control over resources on the ocean floor, thought to be rich in hydrocarbons and minerals. At the centre of the disputed area is the small uninhabited island of Rockall, which was claimed by Britain in 1955.
In the Gulf of Mexico, US oil companies are already competing to drill in waters that are 10,000 feet deep. Their boreholes have to punch a passage through thick layers of deposited salt and penetrate six miles into the Earth's crust.
In a report in 2001, research at Southampton Oceanography Centre calculated that the riches lying around on or under the ocean floor within extended legal continental shelf (ELCS) areas were worth trillions of dollars.
"Four elemental metals are the main components of value in manganese nodules and crusts - manganese, copper, nickel and cobalt," observed the centre's Bramley Murton in the study. "Extrapolating known occurrences worldwide, the total amount of these nodules and crusts within the ELCS regions may be as much as 13bn tonnes.
"Conventional oil and gas comprise an estimated 106bboe (billion barrels of oil equivalent) with a similar estimate of 115bboe for gas hydrates. In total, the resource potential (excluding recovery and production costs) contained within the ELCS regions of the world amounts to an estimated $11,934 trillion (at 2001's raw commodity prices)." Today's values are likely to be far higher.
The most intriguing potential lies within what are known as methane hydrates, which form ice-like crystals in the low temperatures and high pressures found on the deep seabed. They are believed to hold up to twice the amount of energy stored in carbon-based fossil fuels. If exploited as a fuel, however, many environmentalists fear they could trigger runaway global warming.
"Methane is also a highly effective greenhouse gas," Murton's study noted. "Because hydrate reservoirs are extremely sensitive to climate change, they have positive feedback mechanisms that can catastrophically accentuate global warming. The presence of subsurface hydrate is also directly linked to major reductions in seafloor stability that influences the frequency and magnitude of submarine landslides and their associated tidal surges."