Home » US Claims Huge Chunk of Seabed Amid Strategic Push for Resources

US Claims Huge Chunk of Seabed Amid Strategic Push for Resources

How America's latest move could spark a new race for the ocean floor

by Victor Adetimilehin

The US has extended its claims on the ocean floor by an area twice the size of California, securing rights to potentially resource-rich seabeds at a time when Washington is ramping up efforts to safeguard supplies of minerals key to future technologies.


The so-called Extended Continental Shelf covers about 1 million square kilometers (386,100 square miles), predominantly in the Arctic and Bering Sea, an area of increasing strategic importance where Canada and Russia also have claims.


According to a report by Mining.com, the US has also declared the shelf’s boundaries in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico.


The long-awaited announcement earlier this week maps the outer reaches of the US continental shelf, the country’s land territory under the sea. Under international law, countries have economic rights to natural resources on, and under, the seabed floor based on the boundaries of their continental shelves.


Why it Matters

The decision to unilaterally delineate its continental shelf boundary, rather than to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and then submit a claim through the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a UN-supported group, may raise the ire of other countries, said Rebecca Pincus, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, which has devoted an entire web page to the ramifications of this week’s news.


“I think a lot of other countries around the world are going to have thoughts about how the US has done this,” she said. It also may reduce the likelihood of the US ever ratifying the law since a major reason for doing so would have been to make a CLCS claim, she said.


The US State Department said that the development “is about geography, not resources.”


What’s at Stake

While it’s unclear what materials, if any, can be exploited, the claims come as Washington seeks to boost access to so-called critical minerals that are necessary for electric vehicle batteries and renewable energy projects, industries the Biden administration has tagged as key national security concerns. 


The US continental shelf contains 50 hard minerals, including lithium and tellurium, and 16 rare earth elements, James Kraska, chair and professor of International Maritime Law at the US Naval War College, wrote in an article this week. The extension “highlights American strategic interests in securing these hard minerals on its seabed and subsoil, lying sometimes hundreds of miles offshore,” he wrote.


The most recent assessment by the US Geological Survey, conducted in 2008, estimated that about 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of gas lie inside the Arctic Circle, along with critical metals needed for electrification.


Who Else Is Involved

More than half of America’s extended continental shelf — 520,400 square kilometers — stretches in a large wedge north of Alaska toward the Arctic Ocean, including an area that overlaps with Canadian claims to the seabed floor, according to the US statement.


Another 176,300 square kilometers lie in the Bering Sea, between Alaska and Russia, but falls on the US side of the maritime boundary between the two countries. 


Russia, Denmark, and Canada have waited years for their overlapping Arctic seabed claims to be reviewed by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a UN-supported group.


The State Department said in its response to questions that the US would need to establish maritime boundaries in the future with Canada, the Bahamas, and Japan where their claims overlap.


The US claims on the ocean floor could spark a new race for the ocean floor, but also an opportunity for cooperation and dialogue among the countries involved. 

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