Murkowski asks Senate to swiftly ratify Law of the Sea treaty

The US could forfeit several billion barrels of oil equivalent if the Senate doesn't ratify the Law of the Sea treaty soon, warned Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alas.) in a May 8 floor speech.

Nick Snow
Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, May 9 -- The US could forfeit several billion barrels of oil equivalent if the Senate doesn't ratify the Law of the Sea treaty soon, warned Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alas.) in a May 8 floor speech.

Noting that she has spoken frequently about the 10-16 billion bbl potential beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, Murkowski said "an unquantifiable amount of resource may lie…even further to the north, beyond ANWR, off the coast of Alaska and beyond."

She said the US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic Ocean may cover 25% of the world's undiscovered oil and gas resources. That number, based on a 2000 assessment of a few Arctic basins, could prove conservative when the US Department of the Interior completes a more detailed survey that's currently under way, she said.

"What is the problem with this situation? The fact is, we believe the potential in the Arctic under the ice may be enormous, but we have no legal claim as a nation to most of this oil or gas unless the United States becomes a party to the Law of the Sea convention," Murkowski said.

"I can tell you, if we're not willing to claim it, if we don't step up to claim it, others will," she declared.

The treaty allows a coastal state to exert sovereign rights to all resources, living and nonliving, within its exclusive economic zones out to 200 nautical miles, or essentially its outer continental shelf, she explained. But it also allows a nation to lay claim to an extended OCS if it can show that the OCS extends beyond the 200-mile limit, Murkowski said.

Potential overlap
In 2007, she continued, the US Coast Guard cutter Healy went north beyond Alaska and into the Arctic Ocean to map the ocean floor and determine how far the continental shelf extends. The mapping that it brought back demonstrates that Alaska and the US can potentially add another 100 miles offshore to the existing 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The area, about the size of California, extends from the Canadian border through the Chukchi Sea, where it would overlap a claim that Russia already has submitted, she said.

"It is estimated that Russia's claim as its Arctic Ocean shelf…could hold 580 billion bbl of oil equivalent. And 90 billion of those bbl could be in the Chukchi Sea and the East Siberian Sea, close in to the state of Alaska," Murkowski said. Russia's claim covers 45% of the Arctic Ocean, she pointed out.

Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Brazil, Norway, France, and Mexico also have submitted individual claims, and France, Ireland, Spain, and the UK have filed a joint claim, according to Murkowski. The United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf has already confirmed Australia's claim to another 2.5 million sq km of its extended OCS, she said.

"This is an area five times the size of France. For those of us thinking a little closer to home, that is three times the size of Texas. I believe it is only a matter of time before other claims are accepted as well," she said.

Several politically conservative groups have objected to US participation in the Law of the Sea convention because they believe it raises sovereignty questions. Other organizations support ratification, including the American Petroleum Institute, National Ocean Industries Association, and the International Association of Drilling Contractors.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee favorably referred ratification out on Oct. 31 by 17 to 4 votes, Murkowski said. "We have the opportunity to stake a claim to an area of the seabed that we very strongly believe likely contains billions of bbl of oil. We have the research to demonstrate that the seabed is part of our extended continental shelf. But we cannot claim ownership of these resources without being a party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea," she said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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