Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is crafting a strategy to ratify the long-stalled Law of the Sea Treaty this year -- a move that ocean and foreign policy experts say is increasingly important as climate change reshapes the Arctic.
Kerry said this week that he is working to find time for a hearing and votes on the treaty, which governs navigation, fishing, economic development and environmental standards on the open seas.
"I hope we're ready to ratify it. I am going to do everything in my power, but I want to do it on the right schedule," Kerry told reporters. "We're sort of working through that process carefully."
His remarks came after a "roundtable" that the Foreign Relations Committee hosted to get advice on the Arctic from experts on the region, ocean conservation advocates and foreign policy strategists. Among the panelists' many recommendations to address the drastic changes in the Arctic economy and ecosystem, they listed the Law of the Sea as paramount.
"The sea ice is melting faster than policy can keep up with it," said Scott Borgerson, a former Coast Guard instructor who is now a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "First and foremost, my strongest recommendation is to finally get on with it -- it is high time that the U.S. finally accedes to the Law of the Sea."
He added: "At all the conferences we go to we have to defend -- and it's impossible to defend, why the U.S. is not party to this treaty."
More than 150 other nations have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. U.S. leaders have signed onto the agreement and the George W. Bush administration supported it, but several Senate conservatives have stymied its ratification.
Becoming a party to the 25-year-old international treaty would allow the United States to claim rights to mineral-rich portions of the Arctic seafloor. Experts told the Foreign Relations Committee that will be even more important as nations rush to make new claims in the Arctic.
"It is very clear the U.S. has to be a part of the Law of the Sea," said David Carlson, director of the International Polar Year program office.
Recent studies have shown that Arctic sea ice has receded rapidly in recent years, leading to concerns about conflicts over environmental protection, control of recently opened waterways and access to natural resources as nations scramble to exploit the resource-rich region.
Nations bordering the Arctic are already making claims on the oil, gas and mineral-rich territory, but several disputes have already arisen over competing claims and witnesses warned lawmakers that more disputes would likely arise if stronger international policies are not developed.
Getting the votes
The treaty, first negotiated in the 1980s, has garnered an impressive, wide-ranging list of supporters -- including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all living former chiefs of naval operations, four former secretaries of state, the heads of the American Petroleum Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the governors of seven coastal states.
The treaty's backers are hopeful that after years of delay, the Senate may finally approve it this year.
Potentially helping it on that path is the solid Democratic majority in the Senate and advocates in the Obama administration. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said ratification is "long overdue" and will be a top priority. And Vice President Joe Biden was a major proponent of its ratification when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
While the Bush administration gave its support to the treaty, lobbyists and lawmakers who support the Law of the Sea said they expect the Obama administration might be more active in pushing for its approval.
"[Biden] understands it, and I hope he's going to be very -- part of the game plan," Kerry said.
The treaty also has a major advocate on the Republican side in Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). At the roundtable earlier this week, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee urged Kerry to schedule hearings on the treaty "expeditiously" and push the issue with the White House.
"I will help you," Murkowski told the chairman.
Kerry replied: "I hope you are going table to table in the Republican caucus."
It would take 67 votes to ratify the treaty. If all of the Democrats voted in favor, Kerry would only need to find eight more Republicans at present. Advocates for the bill say there are easily 80 votes in support of ratification, but the problem is finding time for it on the Senate floor. They hope that given that 2009 is not an election year, lawmakers might find a window.
"It's not a question of getting the votes to approve it, it's a question of time ... it's a parliamentary issue at this point," said Caitlyn Antrim, who tracks the issue for Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans.
Kerry said his aides are assessing the Senate agenda, timing, availability of witnesses and President Obama's timing in an effort to come up with a schedule for ratifying the treaty.
The Republicans who oppose the treaty would likely use Senate procedure to prolong the debate, meaning it could take up to a week of floor time. Indeed, one of the more vocal opponents of the treaty, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), said in an interview this week that he would "do all I could" to block the measure if it came to the Senate floor.
"It's called sovereignty. We seem to be in such a hurry to give up our sovereignty to multinational organizations; the Law of the Sea certainly fits into that," Inhofe said.
The treaty provides a framework for protection of the marine environment and claims on energy resources. The polar region contains 22 percent of the world's undiscovered but technically recoverable oil and gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, with about 84 percent of those deposits located offshore.
Among the countries that are already party to the treaty, there has been a recent rush in claims on the Arctic. The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf -- a body of specialized undersea geographers and hydrographers established under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention -- has seen its workload double from late last year, fulfilling its members' predictions of a backlog that could take years to resolve (Greenwire, April 13).
From 2001 through 2007, just nine claims were put forward as more advanced Law of the Sea Treaty countries surveyed their continental shelves. But since Japan issued its sweeping claim to Pacific Ocean territory last November, many smaller states have leaped into the fray. All told, the commission now has 22 applications.
Kerry said he has a personal interest in the issues facing the Arctic and recognizes the need for swift action: "This is very interesting to me. It is very challenging, but it is also very urgent. We need to get on this fast."