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Will the U.S. join the Law of the Sea?

Air Date: Week of
Law of the Sea Treaty proponents say that the U.S. should sign onto the convention to have a stake in determining how arctic resources are allocated and used. (Photo: Flickr CC/Brian Digital)

The race is on for oil and minerals under the melting Arctic ice. But the U.S. is still not on board with the Law of the Sea, the UN treaty on who gets access to ocean resources. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young talks with Sen. John Kerry about his effort to get the U.S. to ratify the Law of the Sea.


GELLERMAN: Well from rivers we now go to oceans. It’s been 30 years since the UN Law of the Sea was first established, and the United States still hasn’t ratified the treaty. The Law of the Sea defines a nation’s rights and responsibilities in, on and under the world’s oceans and the treaty has global implications for national security, commerce and the environment.

Democratic Senator John Kerry is once again taking up the treaty – he’s Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Living on Earth’s Jeff Young spoke with the Senator from Massachusetts as he began holding hearings into the Law of the Sea…and Jeff joins me in the studio, hi Jeff.

YOUNG: Hi Bruce.

GELLERMAN: So, 30 years since the treaty was first established - give us an idea of which countries are in and which aren’t.

YOUNG: One hundred sixty two countries have ratified; that’s nearly every major developed country - except the U.S.. The U.S. is in this small group with countries like North Korea, Iran and Libya that have not ratified.

GELLERMAN: So why not? What’s going on?

YOUNG: You know, it’s been this political football that’s been kicked around through five presidential administrations now. The most recent round of this was this past week’s hearings in the Senate’s Foreign Relations committee. The main point we heard there is that without being a party to this treaty, the U.S. simply lacks authority as we see more and more disputes over who gets access to the ocean’s resources.

GELLERMAN: So, give me an example, where is this happening.

YOUNG: The Arctic. The Arctic’s a prime example because we have the climate is warming, the ice is retreating, you have shipping lanes opening up that weren’t there before, there’s this race on for oil and maybe mining of the seabed. So, before the hearings I called Senator Kerry, and he told me that he thinks the U.S. is at a disadvantage there.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.

KERRY: We are the only Arctic nation that is not a signatory to this treaty. And frankly it’s in our interest - we have major companies: communications companies, mining companies, oil and gas companies, others - who very much want certainty about their investments, which are in the millions of dollars if they go out there and do it. And they want a guarantee that they’re doing it with legality.

YOUNG: You see a scenario where people are exploiting resources and we’re not even part of the discussion.

KERRY: Correct. There are parts of the Arctic shelf that are exclusive to the United States. And China and Russia are up there, right now, mapping those sites and looking at the areas they would like to exploit. It is possible that if the United States is not a signatory you could have them drilling in a disputed area and you have no recourse, except perhaps force, but you’d have no legality supporting your use of force because you wouldn’t have had an adjudicated claim.

YOUNG: Bruce, you might remember some time ago a Russian submarine actually planting a flag on the floor of the sea under the Arctic ice. That was symbolic, but it’s symbolic of the kind of dispute that the Senator’s talking about.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, I remember that! So, a lot at stake. The Senator mentioned big companies who want to get to the oil, gas and minerals under the sea, but obviously there are some very big environmental issues here as well.

YOUNG: Yeah, and politically, it creates one of these “Washington strange bedfellows” situations. In this case, we have the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute teaming up with major environmental groups to try to get the U.S. to ratify the Law of the Sea.

GELLERMAN: So big oil and big green hand in hand?

YOUNG: It’s an unusual sight. More often they’re at each other’s throats, right? I asked Andrew Rosenberg about this. He’s a professor of natural resources and he’s followed this issue very closely. Professor Rosenberg says that without the treaty it’s tough to get environmental concerns on the agenda.

ROSENBERG: There certainly will be oil and gas and other mineral exploration. And done well - that’s of course an important economic activity. But done poorly or with weaker standards, obviously it can be a high-risk activity. So, from an environmental perspective, we want to ensure that we have a full role, sitting at the table, can strongly make our points in the form that will be setting much of the legal framework for those activities. Without a policy framework, how do you do that?

Andrew Rosenberg teaches natural resources at the University of New Hampshire. (Conservation International)

YOUNG: And that’s why there’s pretty strong bipartisan political support for ratification. You’ve got a number of people on both sides of the aisle who say: ‘Hey, it’s best if the U.S .at least has a seat at the table.’

GELLERMAN: So what’s the opposition? Who’s against this, and why?

YOUNG: The opposition comes from those who simply distrust the UN. They look at the Law of the Sea and other treaties as a threat to US sovereignty.

GELLERMAN: So it’s ideological.

YOUNG: Mostly, but there’s also concern about money. Opponents especially dislike the treaty’s provisions that would split up royalties from drilling and mining and things like that. And this wouldn’t affect things that happened inside the 200 miles from the coast - the exclusive economic zone. The question here is about how to handle things that are farther out on the continental shelf. And here’s how Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe puts it at one of the hearings.

INHOFE: And this is the first time in history that an international organization, the UN in this case, would possess taxing authority over this country.

YOUNG: The state department and the military largely dismiss that argument, they support ratification. But this sovereignty issue - it holds strong appeal for some conservatives and I’ll tell you another thing, Bruce, the opposition here has a very useful rhetorical tool in the acronym: Law of the Sea Treaty.


YOUNG: Lost! So you hear this “LOST cause,” “LOST at Sea,” that sort of thing. And I also…listening to the hearings I had this strong sense of deja vu. And I realized, you know I first reported on this issue seven years ago when the Senate last considered it. And the arguments sound almost exactly the same today! It really just shows you how stuck this issue has become.

GELLERMAN: So why does Senator Kerry think things might be different now?

YOUNG: Well, I asked him that. And it’s about a sense of urgency that he sees and that’s mostly about China. You have China pursuing resources in the ocean, you have China staking out parts of the Pacific, and not surprisingly, China’s a big topic at the hearings.

GELLERMAN: So does Senator Kerry have the votes he needs?

YOUNG: Not clear. Of course you need a supermajority: 67 votes to ratify a treaty, so it’s an uphill climb right there. You have some moderate Republicans like Indiana’s Richard Lugar who will be leaving the Senate, so there’s a limited window to get those votes. The proponents don’t want this to get wrapped up in election politics so I don’t think it’s likely we’ll see a vote on this by the full Senate until after November.

GELLERMAN: OK, well thank you very much for coming in Jeff.

YOUNG: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: That’s Living on Earth’s Jeff Young.

[MUSIC: Groove Collective “Grier’s Near” from Live and Hard To Find (KUFALA Records 2006)]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: The wheels are coming off the bus - money woes for mass transit. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: John Beasley: “Ubiquitous” from 3 Brave Souls (BFM Jazz 2012)]



The Joint Ocean Commission website


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