Who Gets the Oil?: Arctic Energy Exploration in Uncertain Waters and the Need for Universal Ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

By Wilder, Meagan P. | Houston Journal of International Law, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Who Gets the Oil?: Arctic Energy Exploration in Uncertain Waters and the Need for Universal Ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea


Wilder, Meagan P., Houston Journal of International Law


  I. INTRODUCTION TO THE ARCTIC

 II. OIL AND GAS IN THE ARCTIC AND THE IMPLICATIONS OF
     CLIMATE CHANGE
     A. Arctic Geography
     B. Oil in the Arctic
     C. Scientific Projections on the Arctic

III. EMERGING ARCTIC TERRITORIAL DISPUTES

 IV. THE LANGUAGE AND HISTORY OF THE LAW OF THE SEA.
     A. Legal Background on the Law of the Sea
     B. The Content of the U.N. Convention on the Law of
        the Sea
     C. Existing Legal Framework for Claims to Territory
        under UNCLOS
  V. ONE OPTION FOR RESOLVING ARCTIC TERRITORIAL
     DISPUTES UNDER UNCLOS
     A. Abandoning UNCLOS Is Not Necessary
     B. Specific Recommendations
VI. CONCLUSION AND CALL TO ACTION

"International law in most important particulars never has been impartially just and never has been stable, but always has been and always will be a product of the interplay of national interests, prejudices and pressures, and therefore has been unstable, uncertain, and controversial." (1)

I. INTRODUCTION TO THE ARCTIC

Less than two weeks before President George W. Bush left the White House, the Bush Administration issued a Presidential Directive asserting that "[t]he United States is an Arctic [N]ation." (2) Though this declaration might have seemed surprising, it was the Administration's final attempt to position the United States to stake a claim in the Arctic--the last large piece of non-jurisdictional territory on Earth. (3)

Isolated on top of the planet, the North Pole and the vast Arctic region surrounding it contain valuable oil and natural gas deposits. (4) Despite the region's valuable resources, until fairly recently, the international community has paid little attention to the Arctic. (5) As the Earth's atmosphere has warmed and the Polar Ice Cap has thawed, Arctic waters have become more navigable, causing fossil fuels in the Arctic to become more accessible. (6) The result has been a flurry of international competition. (7)

The Arctic has been international territory since 1997 when 152 nation-states ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). (8) Today, UNCLOS governs territorial claims in the Arctic. (9) Under UNCLOS, each of the five nations bordering the Arctic--the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway--has limited jurisdiction extending up to 200 nautical miles from its respective coastal baseline. (10) Despite these limitations, UNCLOS also permits a country to extend its so-called offshore exclusive economic zone (EEZ) where it can demonstrate "that the Arctic seafloor's underwater ridges are not a separate feature, but a geological extension of the country's own continental shelf." (11)

This rather obscure clause in UNCLOS has sparked an international race to the Arctic, dubbed the "Cold Rush." (12) Arctic nations now find themselves competing among one another for enormous wealth by submitting extended continental shelf claims to the United Nations. (13) These extended territorial claims have led to what some consider '"the last big shift in ownership of territory in the history of the Earth."' (14) The resolution of these disputes will determine which nations own a piece of the Arctic, and answer the ultimate question: "Who gets the oil"?

This Comment will evaluate the effectiveness of UNCLOS at resolving Arctic territorial disputes. Part I will provide background information on Arctic geography and recent climate change in the region. Current Arctic territorial disputes under UNCLOS will be discussed in Part II, with a focus on Russia's current extended continental shelf claim. Background information on early maritime law and the law of the sea will be provided in Part III, as well as an outline of the relevant provisions of UNCLOS. Part IV will recommend one option for resolving extended continental shelf claims under UNCLOS. Specifically, Part V will argue for universal ratification of UNCLOS and posit that UNCLOS signatories amend Article 298 to permit binding resolution of boundary disputes pursuant to Article 287. …

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