Another Kind of Meltdown

It’s an unfortunate truth that the world is running out of oil–or rather, it is running out of easily obtainable oil. Rising prices at the pump are the best indicator of this phenomenon. These prices also make formerly uneconomic sources of oil profitable. Wells that were once considered “tapped” are now once again in production, and the high global price of a barrel of crude oil drives many companies and countries to look for unconventional sources around the globe.

As was widely reported in the media this week, the amount of the Arctic Ocean covered in ice fell to a record low this summer. While this poses tricky questions for those who continue to deny global warming, it poses tricky problems international law as well. Namely, it is widely suspected by geologists that there are potentially vast deposits of hydrocarbons waiting under the ice. As the ice recedes permanently due rising temperatures and the inability to reach an international accord to limit the emission of greenhouse gases, it creates the of potential for international competition for those resources. Thus while climate change is often thought of as a scientific debate, it has consequences that reach the highest corridors of international law.

This situation is largely unprecedented in human history. How to handle the international exploitation of newly discovered resources in international waters is difficult. There is no existing international law framework to deal with the issue. Usually, countries attempt to avoid this problem by claiming vast stretches of the area for themselves, but this itself raises thorny legal issues. Antarctica, for example, is currently claimed by many different powers, most of which are either (1) no where near Antarctica or (2) lack the economic resources or technical skill to explore it. There is even an Antarctic Treaty dealing with the issue.

Although not covered in ice, a similar situation exists in the South China Sea. In that situation, three Asian nations, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines claim extensive stretches of the Sea (and a few others maintain smaller claims). A large portion falls squarely within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which most countries with maritime borders are party. Exactly who wins in such a situation is guesswork, because most of international law simply isn’t written yet. How to properly administer competing claims to natural resources far offshore is one such area.

In the case of the Arctic, the biggest claimants are likely to be Russia and Canada, but Norway, Finland, and other nations (including the U.S.) are likely to take an interest. More may also stake out their claims. The existing Convention on the Law of the Sea is inadequate to deal with the situation. The South China Sea is a prominent example of the direction the race to acquire resources could take. This calls for a proactive international framework. Judging from the inability to act on the underlying cause of the dispute (i.e., climate change), however, it appears unlikely that this area of international law will soon be fleshed out. A pity we can’t run an experiment to fix this problem.


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