The US claims a large chunk of the ocean floor amid a strategic push for resources

The US has expanded its seabed claims to an area twice the size of California, securing rights to potentially resource-rich seabeds at a time when Washington is stepping up efforts to protect mineral supplies key to future technologies.

The so-called Extended Continental Shelf covers about 1 million square kilometers (386,100 square miles), mostly in the Arctic and Bering Sea, an area of ​​increasing strategic importance where Canada and Russia also have claims. The US also declared the boundaries of the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico shelves.

The long-awaited announcement earlier this week mapped the outer part of the US continental shelf, the territory of land under the sea. Under international law, countries have economic rights to natural resources on, and under, the seabed based on the boundaries of their continental shelves.

It’s a big deal because it’s a huge amount of territory, said Rebecca Pincus, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, who devoted an entire web page to the results this week. that news. Its US sovereignty over the seabed, and so whether it’s seabed mining, or oil and gas leasing, or cables, or what have you, the US declares the borders of the ECS and has sovereignty over decisions.

The US State Department says development is about geography, not resources.

The US, like all countries, has an inherent interest in knowing, and communicating to others, the extent of its ECS and where it is entitled to exercise the sovereign rights it claims to have in a email answers to questions. Continuous mapping and exploration is needed to understand habitats, ecosystems, biodiversity and resources, it added.

Although it is unclear what materials, if any, will be exploited, the claims come as Washington seeks to increase access to so-called critical minerals needed for electric batteries. vehicles and renewable energy projects, industries the Biden administration has tagged as critical to national security. concerns. Meanwhile, there are competing calls to protect the fragile environment of the Arctic, the fastest-warming part of the planet as climate change opens up the region to potential development.

Resource potential

The US continental shelf contains 50 hard minerals, including lithium and tellurium, and 16 rare earth elements, James Kraska, chair and professor of International Maritime Law at the US Naval War College, wrote in a this week’s article. The extension underscores America’s strategic interests in securing these hard minerals on the ocean floor and underground, located sometimes hundreds of miles offshore, he wrote.

The most recent assessment by the US Geological Survey, conducted in 2008, estimated that about 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of gas exist within the Arctic Circle, along with critical metals needed for electrification. However, much of that estimate is based on onshore studies and the offshore potential has yet to be explored.

More than half of America’s continental shelf extends 520,400 square kilometers in a large wedge north of Alaska toward the Arctic Ocean, including an area that overlaps Canada’s claim to the sea floor, according to the statement. in the US.

Another 176,300 square kilometers is located in the Bering Sea, between Alaska and Russia, but falls on the US side of the maritime boundary between the two countries. Canada and the US do not have a maritime boundary agreement in the Arctic and the US’s establishment of the outer limits of the Arctic will depend on Canada’s delimitation, the State Department said in its executive summary.

Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

[New Biden administration report considers opening 28 million acres of Alaska lands to development]

Law of the Sea

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was never ratified by the US, governs maritime zones around countries. Under the law, countries have the right to any sea or seabed resources within their so-called exclusive economic zones, which extend 200 nautical miles from the coast.

But more than that, they can claim economic rights to the resources on or below the sea floor where their continental shelf extends, even if not within the water column. The surface waters also remain international waters. Russia, Denmark and Canada have been waiting years for their overlapping Arctic seabed claims to be reviewed by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a UN-backed group, with Russia the first to receive a decision earlier this week. year.

The State Department said in its response to questions that the US should establish maritime borders in the future with Canada, the Bahamas and Japan where their claims overlap. It added that the US uses the same rules to define the extended continental shelf as UNCLOS, which the Biden administration said it supports joining.

The decision to unilaterally delineate its continental shelf boundary, instead of approving UNCLOS and then submitting a claim through the commission, may anger other countries, said Pincus of the Wilson Center.

I think a lot of other countries around the world have thoughts on how the US has done it, he said. It may also reduce the possibility of the US approving the law because a key reason for doing so is to make a CLCS claim, he said.

With assistance from Courtney McBride and Dave Merrill.


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