New Horizons in Environmental and Energy Law series
Edited by Tim Stephens and David L. VanderZwaag
Chapter 8: Polar continental shelves: Australian and Canadian challenges and opportunities
The law of the sea bestows upon coastal states sovereign rights in the continental shelf, the physical extension or prolongation of the land territory underneath the sea. On the basis of this entitlement, coastal states in both polar regions have maintained longstanding assertions to continental shelf areas in the polar seas. As climate change transforms landscapes and seascapes in the polar regions, there is a popular perception that a 'gold rush' is underwayas littoral states 'scramble' to assert rights to areas of the seafloor containing valuable resources. However, this narrative oversimplifies the legal and political reality, which is better understood as a steady march to map and delimit maritime zones, and to resolve overlapping claims, consistent with the law of the sea. In the Antarctic, the seven claimants (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom) contend that they have rights to continental shelves appurtenant to the Antarctic coast in the Southern Ocean. However, these 'claims', like the claims over Antarctica itself, are not recognized by the international community at large, are placed in abeyance by the Antarctic Treaty, and have little practical relevance in the near term because of the prohibition on mining within the Antarctic Treaty Area (ATA) under the Madrid Protocol. In the Arctic, there is no equivalent to the Antarctic regime, and continental shelf questions are governed solely by the law of the sea.
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