UNITED NATIONS -- The biggest land grab since colonial times is accelerating as nations scramble to claim writ over hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean floor, much of it believed to be rich in natural resources.
Yesterday marked the 10-year deadline for most countries filing claims over extended seabeds with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a panel created under the U.N. Law of the Sea treaty to review and certify the legitimacy of claims.
Though there is little chance treaty members would hold their peers to the deadline, countries nevertheless rushed to file applications that take years to complete, with poor nations leaning heavily on rich ones to complete the expensive and technically complicated process.
This month alone, more than 20 countries have submitted claims for continental shelf areas stretching beyond their 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones. These ranged from India, Pakistan, South Africa and Nigeria to numerous smaller states and European powers.
About 30 other nations -- including China, Cuba, South Korea and Angola -- filed preliminary data this month to beat the deadline.
All told, the commission has received 50 separate submissions, 35 of which arrived just this year. The first 15 trickled in over the first eight years of the commission's existence.
"I would be rather very surprised if there is going to be any new state coming up," said Hariharan Pakshi Rajan, a senior officer at the United Nations' Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. "Practically all states who have been entitled ... have either provided a submission or they have already given preliminary information."
Though the waters above claimed areas will remain international, the Law of the Sea mandates that states can win the sole right to exploit anything on or beneath the seabed if they convince the commission that the zones are a natural prolongation of their dry landmasses. Winning such claims can open the door to oil, natural gas, mineral deposits, methane hydrates and even shellfish.
"In some cases, countries are claiming areas that, geomorphologically, it is not apparent that they are part of the shelf," said Joshua Brien, a legal expert at the London-based Commonwealth Secretariat, which has been active in producing many of the submissions. "What countries have to do is provide supplementary evidence, and that's usually geological, sometimes refraction seismic ... to support their proposition that it's actually a submerged prolongation of the land."
Brien has been assisting many developing nations with their claims. His office has lent support to Kenya, Ghana, Barbados and others. Meanwhile, the Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea has helped the former Dutch colony of Suriname submit a claim to Atlantic waters that are potentially rich in oil and natural gas. Other experts and companies in the developed world are helping poor nations file claims, often doing all of the work for them.
Major claims, major disputes
Of the 50 applications it has received, the commission has only completed work on eight, as the review of thousands of pages of technical documents and complex hydrographic data typically takes about two years.
One of the biggest areas approved so far belongs to Australia, which got a green light in 2008 to stake claim to an area larger than California. And in 2007, Brazil won the right to control a swath of Atlantic seabed. In recent years, Brazil has discovered huge offshore oil deposits that could make it the world's fourth-largest oil and gas producer.
Other successful claimants include Ireland, New Zealand and Mexico. In March, a joint submission by European states, encompassing the continent's Atlantic coastline, was also finalized.
Though states may be eager to get on with exploiting fresh ocean bottom, the recent flood of applications means those late in the game can expect to wait decades for final recommendations unless the commission itself is radically reformed. But the new activity has already reopened several long-dormant territorial disputes.
China objects to Vietnam's claim over ocean floor in the South China Sea, as it includes islands disputed by the two sides. Argentina and the United Kingdom now find themselves in a fresh row over those nations' competing claims to territory surrounding the Falkland Islands. France and Canada are also at odds over a pending claim by Paris near its North American territories.
New propaganda wars are also emerging.
Last week, Pakistani authorities proudly told their national media that the United Nations had granted it control to some new Indian Ocean territory, even though it could be many years until the commission can even examine Pakistan's application.
Meanwhile, Vietnam and China are locked in a verbal battle being played out in the press, and Argentina's bombastic claim to ownership of South Atlantic and Antarctic seabed is upsetting many.
But the most highly anticipated territorial confrontation -- determining control of the Arctic Ocean's seabed -- won't play out until a few years from now.
Sources say Russia has decided to postpone its Arctic bid to 2013, confident that it can wait as Canada and Denmark work through their painstaking surveys.
"Maybe it will happen before that," said a Russian official here. The official said his government has not decided when to submit new evidence that it should control the North Pole but agreed that Russia faces "no real deadline" and still has plenty of time. Denmark and Canada have until 2012 and 2013, respectively, to file claims to the commission.
In March, Norway became the first nation to win control of Arctic territory, when the commission finished its review of Oslo's claims north of Svalbard, though that region lies far south of the North Pole.
That leaves Russia, Canada, Denmark and the United States to sort out the remaining Arctic spoils. But despite the tension surrounding the matter, exacerbated by the recent release of a Kremlin document suggesting the possibility of armed conflict within a decade, there is growing evidence that any disputes will be worked out through cooperation and not confrontation.
Canada and Denmark are cooperating on their Arctic surveys, though the nations are vying for control of a tiny outcrop off Greenland. Washington and Ottawa are also working together to survey the continental shelf north of Alaska and the Yukon, though their maritime boundary there has yet to be finalized.
Russia and Canada are in bilateral discussions over their closely aligned interests to restrict shipping through their Arctic waters. And diplomats from Arctic nations are now even discussing the possibility of a joint Russian-Canadian-Danish submission to the United Nations' continental shelf commission, suggesting an orderly division of the area.
"It also raises the possibility that some of the Arctic Ocean countries might seek to negotiate coordinated submissions," said Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia professor and Law of the Sea expert.
For now, the biggest worry is the commission's growing workload.
Experts estimate that it could take 15 to 20 years to resolve all the claims now on the commission's desk. The 21 commission members have jobs aside from their U.N. duties and only meet part-time here to review claims.
There are proposals for making the commission a full-time U.N. body, but member states have so far been unable to reach agreement.
Since it is not party to the treaty, the United States is left out of all of this activity, even though many of the core provisions of the Law of the Sea -- including the 200-nautical mile economic zone and the right to claim control of continental shelf -- were originally U.S. ideas.
Commission members say they will probably be forced to ignore any U.S. claims, and officials in Washington confirm that is their understanding, as well. But odds are growing the Senate might ratify the treaty this year, though opposition from conservative lawmakers remains high.