Saturday, February 23, 2008

Redrawing the economic map of the oceans

The world's oceans seem to be taking hits from just about every conceivable direction these days: global climate change, over fishing, pollution -- you name it. Now the Wall Street Journal reports on an activity going on, fairly unnoticed that has major implications for the oceans and the global economy as well.

A part-time commission of geoscientists is in the final process of determining how the sea floor beneath the world's oceans will be divided up among nations for the purpose of exploiting its rich mineral resources. What's truly amazing is that the members of this commission admit that they are not up to the task!

One of my very favorite singer/songwriters Tom Waits wrote a song entitled " God's Away on Business". In today's unfolding geopolitical theater of the absurd he offers what may be the most plausible explanation for what's going on . (GW)

Board of Scientists Is Swamped By Claims for Rich Sea Floors

By Robert Lee Hotz
Wall Street Journal
February 22, 2008

Few people know of Alexandre Albuquerque. The 67-year-old retired Brazilian naval commander slips in and out of New York several times a year, unnoticed among dignitaries and tourists around the United Nations Plaza. There, in a windowless fourth-floor conference room, he works in secrecy to redraw the economic map of the oceans.

An expert in maritime boundaries, Mr. Albuquerque is brokering the largest peacetime expansion of national territories in modern memory, encompassing millions of square miles of potentially rich reserves of oil, gas and minerals on unclaimed coastal sea floor. As international legal deadlines come due next year, economic ambitions in up to 60 countries ride on his technical acumen -- and limited time.

Mr. Albuquerque is the new chairman of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a part-time group of 21 geoscientists from around the world who serve as sole referee for coastal sea-floor claims brought under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Already, the commission has more than it can handle. It expects as many as 50 new sea-floor claims to be filed by the May 2009 submission deadline for many treaty signatories. (The U.S. hasn't signed the Law of the Sea convention.) Those claims may take decades to settle, with trillions of dollars in untapped mineral resources held in abeyance.

The commission has pressed in vain for more funding to review so much new data. The delays are "not fair to the coastal states," says Mr. Albuquerque.

"We are part-timers; we have other jobs," adds commissioner Peter Croker, an Irish petroleum expert and former chairman who helped to prepare Ireland's Law of the Sea claim. "Are we up to the task? Not really, to be honest."

At Mr. Albuquerque's conference table, science substitutes for gunboat diplomacy. Rising to greet a recent visitor, Mr. Albuquerque -- 6 feet, 2 inches tall with curly white hair -- smiles discreetly. It is a measure of his delicate position that, in granting a rare interview as chairman, Mr. Albuquerque has to be circumspect about his work. He is bound by the treaty that employs him to keep commission proceedings and details of claims confidential.

Mr. Albuquerque is by training a hydrographer. For 20 years, he helped map Brazil's continental shelf and still works for its directorate of hydrography and navigation. Since 1991, he has devoted his professional life to the 600 words of Article 76 of the Law of the Sea, which in archaic and elusive terms defines the borders of the ocean floor and any allowable claim to it.

Policing this scientific frontier, Mr. Albuquerque and his colleagues parse the technical nuances of sea slopes and sediments in the voluminous data submitted by countries seeking, or challenging, authority over bands of ocean floor up to 150 miles beyond the existing 200-mile limit.

What is at stake? "Money. Money, of course," Mr. Albuquerque says. Contested areas of the Arctic, for example, may contain 25% of the world's oil and gas. "The commission is important to allow countries to make agreements among themselves in a peaceful way, instead of struggling for resources."

Countries must justify any expansion of their underwater territory with sonar surveys, seismic readings, gravity maps, depth charts and geomagnetic tracings. All must pass muster with Mr. Albuquerque and his board.

The commission doesn't have the authority to settle any maritime disputes between countries. Instead, it works toward consensus on the scientific details of each sea-floor claim. "The commission is not entitled to tell the coastal states what to do and how to do it. Our work is to verify, check, examine," Mr. Albuquerque says. "Of course, we have doubts, and then we have questions. We cannot say we accept or reject. We examine the submission and make recommendations."

Once a coastal country accepts the commission's recommendations, however, the maritime borders are "final and binding," by the terms of the 1982 convention. There are no provisions for appeal, and the jurisdiction of any international court has not been tested.

The 11-year-old commission has been working on the nine claims submitted since it began accepting cases in 2001. They have yet to finalize most rulings, requesting more precise data.

It's expensive to open a case. New Zealand reportedly budgeted $40 million to prepare its submission. New Zealand and Australia each are said to seek half a million square miles or more of sea floor. Russia wants the North Pole. It also seeks portions of the surrounding Arctic sea floor; so do Canada, Denmark and Norway. A hard copy of data from the Russian Federation could fill the conference room from floor to ceiling.

No one outside the proceedings knows all the technical details of the territory at stake; the commission makes public only a summary of each submission.

Should it ratify the treaty, the U.S. is poised to claim areas in the Arctic, the Pacific and the Atlantic that encompass an area the size of California, with resources valued at an estimated $1.3 trillion. The Bush administration sought Senate approval of the treaty this year but that now appears unlikely, a senior U.S. State Department official said. Opponents fear U.N. interference in U.S. sovereign affairs.


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