The world faces disputes over the seabed from the South China Sea to the North Pole as a May 13 UN deadline for claims meant as a milestone toward the final fixing of maritime boundaries lapses.
Most coastal states had to define their continental shelves, areas of shallower water offshore, by Wednesday to a UN Commission that aims to set limits for national rights to everything from oil and gas to life on the ocean floor, Reuters reports.
“This is the sweep after which the maritime limits should be fixed … the final big adaptation of the world map,” said Harald Brekke, a Norwegian official who is a vice-chair of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
“We are seeing many overlapping submissions,” he told Reuters ahead of the deadline, set in 2004. Forty-eight nations have made full claims and dozens more have made preliminary submissions under the deadline.
Russia has made the most spectacular claim by using a mini-sub to plant a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole in 2007, an area that Denmark also says it will also claim.
And submissions have highlighted territorial disputes between Japan and Russia in the Pacific, between China and neighbors over the South China Sea and between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.
“China possesses indisputable sovereignty … over the South China Sea islands and their near areas,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said of islands disputed with countries including Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Brekke said the commission cannot decide ownership of the seabed around disputed islands.
Under existing law, nations can exploit the seabed if their continental shelves extend beyond territorial seas stretching 200 nautical miles from the coast. But the exact limits have not been defined on the map — until now.
So far, the UN Commission has approved large parts of claims by Russia, Brazil, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Mexico and a joint submission by European countries around the Bay of Biscay and the Celtic Sea.
The distant offshore seabed had long been viewed as of little commercial interest. But factors such as global warming that is melting the Arctic ice and better drilling technology are bringing change.
A rig owned by oil and gas drilling group Transocean holds the depth record for drilling in water 10,011 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico in 2003 — the water under the North Pole, for instance, is 4,261 meters (13,980 ft) deep.
One of a new generation of rigs, capable of drilling in 12,000 feet of water has left a shipyard in South Korea for acceptance testing in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, said Guy Cantwell of Transocean in Houston.
Brekke said it would take years to resolve all claims, even those which do not overlap.
Any country missing the deadline — set as midnight in New York (0400 GMT Wednesday) — risked losing the chance of UN endorsement.
The United States is among dozens of nations not bound by the May 13 deadline, since it has not ratified the Convention on the Law of the Sea. President Barack Obama hopes to ratify.
About 50-60 developing nations, including many in Africa, have had help in making claims from the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) with the Norwegian Grid-Arendal foundation, which sees it as a step toward safeguarding the oceans.
“The connections we make with these countries mean that UNEP may be able to help with marine management in future,” Peter Prokosch, head of Grid-Arendal, told Reuters.