Sea law hits rough waters in US Senate

By OGJ editors

WASHINGTON, DC, Mar. 25 --US Senate approval of the 21-year-old Law of the Sea Convention is now far less certain than trade groups anticipated a few months ago.

Treaty opponents got the attention of Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). He held an oversight hearing Wednesday with speakers who urged lawmakers to delay ratifying the United Nations document. Some conservatives are worried US participation could compromise the country's authority over its own shipping lanes.

"This committee is conducting this oversight hearing . . . because we have an obligation to ensure that this convention is consistent with protecting human health, the environment, and does not adversely affect the sovereignty of the United States," Inhofe said. "It is time to slow down and take a critical evaluation of this convention that deals with the Outer Continental Shelf which is in the jurisdiction of this committee."

Until the hearing, treaty proponents anticipated the proposal would readily pass the full Senate. The White House, industry, and their supporters in Congress all have endorsed the measure, saying it will protect US interests by helping guarantee access to the continental shelf beyond 200 miles and protecting navigational freedom.

Reflecting that consensus, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month voted unanimously to send the treaty to the Senate floor for its consideration; it could be brought up for a full Senate vote at anytime.

But some conservative groups are cautioning lawmakers to slow down the process. One worry Inhofe cited is how the treaty addresses seabed-mining rights.

"When a coastal state exploits non-living resources, such as oil, from its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, the convention requires the coastal state to make annual payments starting in the sixth year of production to the International Seabed Authority," Inhofe said in his written statement. "This authority is also granted immunity and accountability from legal process, from search and any form of seizure wherever located and held, and is also exempted from restrictions, regulations, controls and moratoria of any nature. We need to critically examine these concerns to ensure this authority cannot conduct itself in a manner outside the recommendations of this convention," he said.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alas.), who has closely followed the legislative gyrations of the treaty for over 3 decades, spoke before Inhofe's committee and told the chairman he is confident that the UN would be able to clarify and address concerns by treaty opponents.

"I have not raised those concerns, but I do believe we should get the clarification so that the Senate . . . should give its full consent to this convention that we have all lived with over these past almost 30 years," Stevens said.

Global competitiveness
Meanwhile, industry representatives before Inhofe's committee and in letters to Senate Majority Leader Tom Frist (R-Tenn.) urged the Senate not to delay a vote. They argued the treaty is needed now for them to maintain global competitiveness and to ensure the US can have a leadership role in international maritime policy.

"Since the convention's deep seabed mining provisions were amended in July 1994, the convention has enjoyed broad support from the nation's offshore oil and natural gas industry. Utilizing new technology, energy production activities are moving into ultra-deep waters at the edge of the US Exclusive Economic Zone, creating a pressing need for certainty in the delineation of the outer continental shelf boundary," according to a letter sent by industry officials associated with the National Ocean Industries Association.

"Through the convention, objective criteria for delineating the continental shelf have been established. And with the presence of the Continental Shelf Commission, the treaty offers a non-adversarial process for resolving potential disputes and conflicts over the precise limits of the shelf where the margin extends beyond 200 miles," it said.

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