The Next Space Race
The space race between the US and the USSR was a source of national pride, led to important scientific advances, and spurred critical technological developments with widespread applications. Expansion on that frontier is currently stalled, since the costs to push towards Mars are (apologies) astronomical. There's a frontier closer to home that is almost equally unexplored, that offers the potential of enormous resources: the world at the bottom of the oceans. Our competitor in this race is Russia, and we're already losing.
The allotment of natural resources within the oceans is governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea , which protects the territorial right of countries to their own coastal waters and provides guidelines for exploitation of non-national deep sea waters. This last part proved a sticking point here at home; the US initially refused to ratify the agreement because of concerns over what they viewed as excess power granted to the International Seabed Authority. Even after the treaty was revised to accommodate US objections, a handful of anti-UN Republicans (led by everyone's favorite global warming skeptic, Jim Inhofe) prevented ratification. Some other counties on the short list of those that have not ratified the treaty are Iran, North Korea, and Libya -- great company.
Surprise, turns out another section of the treaty was more important: countries are also given sole rights to areas upon the continental shelf extending out from their above-land territory. Russia conveniently discovered an underwater ridge extending deep into Arctic waters, and recently planted a flag (with a sub) under the North Pole in an attempt to solidify their claim. The US was suddenly left with restricted options to counter this move:
In May, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Russia claiming the hydrocarbon-rich area would be to the detriment of U.S. interests. Unless Washington ratifies the U.N. Maritime Convention, pending since 1982, the Senator explained, the U.S. will have no say whatsoever in the dispute — it won't even have a seat on the International Seabed Authority that monitors nations' compliance with the U.N. Maritime convention, controls activities beyond the national jurisdiction limits and currently administers the area around the pole.
The reactionary anti-UN politics of a few extremists cannot be permitted to further harm our national interests. Opening this new frontier could be tremendously important for the US and the world as we exhaust the land-based resources that are so plentiful beneath the waves. Like the space race, there is an element of national pride here, and there are also tangible scientific benefits. The latest edition of Nature has an editorial calling for ratification of the UNCLOS that notes:
[The treaty] includes a right to conduct scientific research anywhere on the immense swathe of ocean that is not controlled by any country, as long as the work is peaceful, noncommercial and disseminated freely. The treaty's scope can expand as fresh issues arise: at the convention's most recent meeting, in May in New York, a framework for dealing with marine genetic resources was discussed.
It is up to Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware), chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, to bring a resolution of ratification through his committee to the Senate floor. He should do so at the earliest available opportunity.
Yes he should. Senate Democrats back this, Bush backs this, environmentalists and oil companies back this. It's time for the US to join the world in taking an active role mapping out the borders of our newest frontier.
missliberties had a nice summary of this topic in the weekend open thread.