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The Wall Street Journal: Arctic Thaw Defrosts a Sea Treaty

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The Wall Street Journal: Arctic Thaw Defrosts a Sea Treaty

November 3, 2007

The Senate moved closer to ratifying a sweeping international treaty that governs every aspect of maritime law, from ocean shipping to deep-sea mining. A 17-4 panel vote sent the Law of the Sea Treaty to the full Senate, where it must win a two-thirds vote for ratification.

The treaty enjoys an odd mix of support from the Bush administration, top diplomats and military leaders, the oil industry and environmentalists. But it is opposed by conservatives who worry it would undermine U.S. sovereignty, and Senate critics repeatedly have blocked the 25-year-old treaty, to which 155 nations have signed on.

Here’s a closer look:

Natural resources: The treaty gives coastal nations, including nonsignatories, rights to manage resources in an “exclusive economic zone” that extends 200 nautical miles from their shores. Nations also can apply to explore for resources on their continental shelf extending as far as 350 nautical miles offshore.

Oil and mining companies support the treaty because it could grant the U.S. access to an additional 291,000 square miles of seabed in the Gulf of Mexico, North Atlantic, Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. Recent estimates suggest more than 400 billion barrels of oil and gas could be located in the Arctic, along with deep-sea deposits of precious metals.

Russia has reported 32 oil and gas discoveries in the Arctic region and underscored the race for resource rights this summer when it planted its flag on a seabed more than 15,000 feet below the North Pole. Canada has disputed the claim.

Taxes are another point of contention. Companies must pay 1% of revenue to an international body on any resources extracted beyond the 200-mile limit after five years of production, with rates rising by 1% annually to a maximum of 7%. Critics object to such payments.

National security: The Navy remains one of the treaty’s top supporters because the treaty ensures the right of free passage through international straits and archipelagoes such as Indonesia. Earlier this year, the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines signed a letter urging the Senate to ratify the treaty.

The Bush administration has argued that the treaty would bolster the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led global effort to interdict shipments of nuclear and missile technology from nations such as North Korea or Iran, but critics have warned that the antiproliferation measures would violate the treaty.

Critics most strongly object to the loss of U.S. sovereignty that would result from ratification, including the delegation of authority to the International Seabed Authority. Critics also claim that the treaty’s dispute-resolution mechanism could allow foreign judges to determine the Navy’s right to seize a ship believed to be carrying terrorists or contraband.

Environment: Environmental organizations support U.S. ratification because the treaty requires signatories to enforce environmental standards in their exclusive economic zones.

Critics say the treaty could give other nations or third-party environmental groups leverage in influencing U.S. environmental policies and that the pact could be used to oppose the very oil and gas exploration that it promises to open up.

* * *

• In 1702, Dutch jurist Cornelius Bynkershoek articulated the “cannon shot” rule that, for centuries, led nations to establish rights to their territorial waters at three nautical miles off their shores, roughly the distance that a cannon ball could be shot.
• President Reagan supported most of the Law of the Sea Treaty as it was conceived in 1982, but refused to sign it because of provisions on deep-sea mining. The agreement was amended in 1994 and signed by President Clinton.
• Oceans cover about 70% of the Earth’s surface.
• The U.S. portion of the “exclusive economic zone” created by the treaty is the largest of any country’s, and at 3.36 million square miles, is larger than the continental U.S.
• The first successful offshore oil platform was established in the Gulf of Mexico in 1947.
• Fewer than 40 nations have opted not to join the Law of the Sea Treaty. The U.S. is the only major power that hasn’t joined.

“Joining will serve the national security interests of theUnited States. …And it will give the United States a seat at the table when the rights that are vital to our interests are debated and interpreted.”
— President Bush

“I cannot support the creation of yet another unaccountable international bureaucracy that might infringe on American sovereignty.”
— Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani

Write to Nick Timiraos at [email protected] and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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