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Energy companies prospecting for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico have used advanced technologies to drill in the deepest waters of U.S. territory. But what happens when they have the capacity—some say they already do—to drill beyond those borders into the high seas? Many believe the answer lies in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

UNCLOS has been signed by 156 nations plus the European Union since opening for ratification in 1982. The treaty endeavors to establish a comprehensive legal framework regarding the world’s oceans, including navigational rights, marine conservation and exploitation of resources. The convention also creates several institutions to carry out its provisions: the International Sea Bed Authority regulates mineral prospecting in the deep seabed, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea resolves border disputes, and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf determines national maritime boundaries.

President Ronald Reagan originally refused to sign the treaty because of language he believed prevented the United States from mining minerals from the sea bed. The following year, however, he announced a new oceans policy that incorporated most of the convention’s provisions, including the establishment of a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off U.S. shores. In November 1994, President Bill Clinton sent UNCLOS to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for ratification, but in 1995 incoming chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) refused to even hold a hearing on it because of his view that all such UN charters undermined U.S. sovereignty.

Today, a coalition encompassing legislators, the energy industry, scientists and the U.S. Navy hope to finally witness the ratification of UNCLOS during the coming session of Congress. The Bush administration has called passage of the treaty “urgent,” and industries from fishing to shipping to telecommunications have lobbied in favor of it.

“Given that no nation has sovereignty beyond its national jurisdiction, the only way to establish property rights in the open ocean is through an international regime,” Sen. Richard Lugar said in a May 2004 speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “At some point, our oil and mining industries will want to prospect beyond the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. They won’t do that without the international legal certainty provided by the Law of the Sea that their claims and investments will be respected by other nations.”

There’s good reason for their sense of urgency. The treaty defines national maritime territory as extending 200 nautical miles from shore—roughly the length of the continental shelf, the extension of continental land that stretches out from the coastline before dropping to the ocean floor. The treaty allows signatories to file claims with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that would expand their territorial zone by proving that the continental shelf stretches beyond 200 miles. Countries are rushing to file their claims before the treaty’s 2009 deadline so they can gain control of valuable oil and gas deposits beneath the ocean’s waters.

As a non-member, the United States has no input into the claims review process. This is especially perturbing considering that Russia filed a claim three years ago to add nearly 400,000 square miles to its Arctic boundary, territory that could potentially overlap with U.S. claims. Although its initial request was rejected, Russia reportedly plans to try again; Denmark has also announced its intention to claim the North Pole as an extension of its continental shelf. The United States has already begun mapping the sea floor off the shores of Alaska and New England in anticipation of ratifying the treaty.

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