The Obama administration is in talks with the Senate to craft a plan to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, a top State Department official said yesterday.
"President Obama is strongly in favor of the United States becoming a party to the Law of the Sea Convention," said Margaret Hayes, director of the State Department's Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs. "We have been in touch with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There is discussion going on as to the exact timing of when they might have a hearing and when they might proceed to have the full Senate consider accession."
Hayes said she hoped the Senate would consider the treaty this year, "but I can't predict that it will."
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) has said that he would like to bring the treaty to a vote this year, although timing the process could be tricky, with the Senate planning to take on health care and climate legislation (E&E Daily, May 7).
The United States is the only major industrialized nation that has failed to ratify the 27-year-old Law of the Sea, despite a broad base of supporters that includes the military, mining interests, the oil and gas industry, and environmental groups. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the treaty in 2007, but action stalled shy of the Senate floor.
The Law of the Sea, which took effect in 1994, governs navigation rights and addresses species protection and other environmental issues. But as the Arctic has warmed and demand has grown for oil and gas, the aspect of the treaty that has received the most attention is language that allows member nations to apply to extract oil, gas and mineral deposits beyond a 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The requisite is that a country show that its continental slope extends beyond that point.
The treaty provision has inspired an Arctic land grab, with Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and other countries racing to snap up portions of a seabed that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates holds 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas.
Mineral rights claims may require new maps
While the United States can't officially claim an extended continental shelf until it accedes to the Law of the Sea, the Obama administration is continuing a multi-year effort to map unexplored portions of the Arctic seafloor to prepare for a future claim.
The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy and the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent will undertake a joint survey mission to the Arctic next month. It is the second U.S.-Canadian Arctic mapping mission and the fifth U.S. Arctic cruise since 2003, the State Department's Hayes told reporters yesterday.
The planned 41-day mission is set to begin Aug. 7. The two vessels will travel from the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska to the Canada Archipelago, surveying an underwater mountain range, the Alpha-Mendeleev Ridge.
"The plan is to build on what we did last year, collecting more data from the northern part of the Canadian basin," said Jacob Verhoef, science director for Natural Resources Canada's Law of the Sea program.
The Healy will use an instrument called an echo sounder to create a three-dimensional map of the seabed, while the Louis S. St-Laurent will collect seismic data to determine the thickness of sediment on the ocean floor. The two ships will take turns breaking ice for each other as they travel through the Arctic.
Although Arctic summer sea ice extent fell to a record low in 2007 -- 40 percent below the 30-year average -- and a near-record low last summer, the mission's lead U.S. scientist said traversing the Arctic could still be tricky.
"The ice conditions this year are very similar to last year, perhaps approaching those of 2007," said Larry Mayer of the University of New Hampshire's Center for Ocean and Coastal Mapping. "That said, what really matters when ships are operating are local ice conditions. And even in minimal ice years, you can get a lot of local ice."