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The US Is Taking an Important, but Imperfect Step in Initiating Extended Continental Shelf Claims – What Are the Implications for the Arctic?

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Today, the US Department of State released an important announcement regarding the nation’s plans to move forward with extended continental shelf (ECS) claims. This is a monumental step, especially for its Arctic interests given the need to protect this unique region while enabling sustainable economic activities. Unfortunately, the significance of this step is muted by the implementation and credibility challenges the US will face as a consequence of its continuing failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in which the process for arbitrating ECS claims is laid out, among many other areas of important maritime governance. UNCLOS has been ratified by 168 states and the European Union.  

The US enjoys the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This entitles the US access to fish and other resources in the water column as well as those on and under the seabed (such as deepwater protein and hydrocarbons) within 200 nautical miles (NM) of its maritime coastlines around the North American continent, including the lengthy coast of Alaska, and in other parts of the Pacific Ocean. Distinct from the ECS, the US can benefit from and enforce its EEZ without formally ratifying UNCLOS because a coastal state has rights to its EEZ without needing to make a formal claim, nor is there a requirement to use and/or enforce the EEZ for the rights to stand.

Article 76 of UNCLOS provides a mechanism for coastal states to claim additional economic rights with respect to resources on or below the seabed beyond the 200 NM EEZ, if they can demonstrate, through geology and bathymetric mapping, that there is a natural extension of their continental shelves. 

US neighbors Canada and Russia, and other Arctic nations have made ECS claims in the high north through UNCLOS, as they have at lower latitudes. Numerous states including France (closely behind the U.S. in EEZ size) and China have submitted claims to the UN to extend continental shelves around their EEZs as well. Although the US abides by UNCLOS in practice, not formally ratifying it has raised questions about the extent to which the nation can or cannot formally make ECS claims or dispute those of others. What are the implications of the US ECS announcement? 

On the one hand, asserting ECS claims, even without ratifying UNCLOS, is important for US communication of its national interests in places such as the Arctic, home to vast energy, mineral, and fish resources. Misinformed claims of impending “resource wars” in media and elsewhere have created narratives against the grain of historical cooperation in that far northern region. Signaling US intent with regard to the ECS in the region could help reinforce the reality that the vast majority of existing and potential Arctic resources are or could be under the legal jurisdiction of the eight Arctic states, removing a potential source of dispute or competition.

On the other hand, lacking UNCLOS accession, US allies and adversaries alike may perceive the announcement as circumvention of the rules and norms of international maritime governance and decision-making. This could cause some issues for cooperation in the Arctic, for example, where UNCLOS is a central tenet of governance, considering that much of the region consists of the Arctic Ocean. 

Yet the US has demonstrated for years that it can abide by UNCLOS without ratifying it, and even nations that have fully ratified UNCLOS, such as China and Russia, have challenged its interpretation. Ratifying the Convention thus doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing, though many would argue that it does provide both symbolic and some tangible benefits in international negotiations. The US is in a difficult spot considering that its lead diplomats are not the ones charged with ratifying the Convention. In a world of hard choices, today’s announcement provides a choppy way forward. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Coast Guard Academy, United States Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, or that of any organization with which the author is affiliated.

About the Author

Abbie Tingstad photo

Abbie Tingstad

Arctic Research Professor, Center for Arctic Study and Policy, U.S. Coast Guard Academy
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