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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 17:35 EDT

UN Seeks To Solve World Seabed Disputes

May 12, 2009

A U.N. deadline on May 13th over maritime boundaries will attempt to solve disputes over the seabed from the South China Sea to the North Pole, Reuters reported.

A U.N. Commission that aims to set limits for national rights to everything from oil and gas to life on the ocean floor is asking most coastal states to define their continental shelves (areas of shallower water offshore) by Wednesday.

Harald Brekke, a Norwegian official who is a vice-chair of the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, said it will be the final big adaptation of the world map and the maritime limits should be fixed.

However, he told Reuters they are seeing many overlapping submissions of the deadline, set in 2004, as forty-eight nations have made full claims and dozens more have made preliminary submissions.

Using a mini-sub, Russia planted a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole in 2007, an area Denmark is also expected to claim.

Other territorial disputes have formed 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.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said China possesses indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their near areas. Countries including Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines also seek claim over the islands.

But the commission cannot decide ownership of the seabed around disputed islands, Brekke said.

Nations can exploit the seabed if their continental shelves extend beyond territorial seas stretching 200 nautical miles from the coast under existing law. But until now the exact limits have not been defined on the map.

The U.N. Commission has already 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.

Factors like global warming – which is melting the Arctic ice – and better drilling technology have led to increased commercial interest over the distant offshore seabed.

In 2003, oil and gas drilling group Transocean broke a depth record for drilling in water 10,011 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Comparatively, the water under the North Pole is 13,980 ft deep.

Guy Cantwell of Transocean in Houston said one of a new generation of rigs capable of drilling in 12,000 feet of water recently left a shipyard in South Korea for acceptance testing in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.

While any country missing the 0400 GMT Wednesday deadline risks losing the chance of U.N. endorsement, Brekke said it would still take years to resolve all claims, even those that do not overlap.

Since the United States has not ratified the Convention on the Law of the Sea, the U.S. is among dozens of nations not bound by the May 13 deadline.

However, President Barack Obama hopes to ratify.

The U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) with the Norwegian Grid-Arendal foundation has helped 50 to 60 developing nations, including many in Africa, in making claims.

UNEP sees it as a step toward safeguarding the oceans.

Peter Prokosch, head of Grid-Arendal, told Reuters the connections made with those countries mean that UNEP may be able to help with marine management in future.

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