The United States should sign the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Treaty, says Melissa Bert, chief of the maritime and international law division at the Coast Guard.
But during a speech on Wednesday at a conference organized by the North American Marine Environment Protection Association Bert said she did not expect to see adoption soon.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., would like to bring it to a vote in the lame duck Congress, she said, but added “I don't know that that is going to happen. But for those of you in the maritime industry, I think it is important and I would like to see it ratified in my lifetime.”
Ratification of the treaty would give the United States more credibility at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and other international venues, she said.
“It is difficult to try and talk about how the rule of law is really critical and that we should adhere to international conventions and international government mechanisms when we are not a party. For that reason it is very important and helps you in the industry,” Bert said.
“At sea, you can't imagine being a police officer, warning a vessel and when someone says 'What did I do wrong officer?,' and we say 'Well, you violated the law of the sea treaty of nations.' That is sort of where we are now with the law of the sea treaty as we are not a party,” she added.
Outer continental shelf (OCS) claims are very important to the oil and gas industry and for those who want to do mining.
“But right now, because we are not a party, we cannot submit a claim,” she said.
Bert noted this is particularly important off the coast of Alaska where she said the OCS is twice the size of California and “some of the richest resources in the world are there –literally trillions of dollars.”
She said despite not being a part of the treaty, the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers assisted this summer with geologists gathering data to help the United States prove certain areas are part of the U.S. OCS, so that when the country eventually ratifies the treaty, U.S. companies will be able to take advantage of it.
Bert said if exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas prove successful, interest in the OCS is likely to grow.
Despite the long Alaskan coast line, she said the United States does not view itself as a polar nation in the same way that Russia, Norway and Canada do, perhaps because the United States has no large cities on the Arctic Sea.
Asked what the major sticking point with the UNCLOS, she said it is “mainly its involvement with the United Nations” and the objection that businesses should not be paying taxes to the UN.
While some critics complain about royalties, she said they are “actually favorable... there are no royalty payments for the first five years and they max out at 7 percent. The reality is that royalties are much higher when you get into the territorial seas of this country and we wouldn't be having the opportunity to drill in global commons if we did not become a party to this or have the leases.”
Bert said there is disagreement among nations about how freely ships should be able to operate in the Arctic. She said the Russians want shipping companies to use their icebreakers if they sail above Siberia, and while not insisting ships have pilots, if they do that they should use Russian pilots.
She said the Chinese want the sea to be viewed as an international straight.
Other speakers at the conferences said the Russians have suggested they should be able to toll ships passing through some Arctic waters. - Chris Dupin