Sea change for Congress on U.N. treaty?

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KAI RYSSDAL: Today in Washington, the Senate took to the high seas -- actually, a treaty called the Law of the Sea. Climate change has forced Congress to take a fresh look at an international agreement it's ignored for a decade.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.


SAM EATON: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a second round of hearings on a U.N. treaty called the Law of the Sea. The U.S. is the only Arctic nation that hasn't yet ratified the 10-year-old treaty.

Supporters say that means the U.S. doesn't have a seat at the table when it comes to negotiating offshore uses of the sea -- and with the Arctic ice cap melting at a record pace, those uses have gained new relevance.

GEORGE NEWTON: The basic essence is oil.

George Newton is the former head of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. The U.S. government estimates that the Arctic seabed could hold about a quarter of the world's untapped oil reserves. But Newton says as long as the U.S. refuses to sign the treaty, it's giving other arctic nations like Russia and Denmark a head start.

NEWTON: What countries want, and oil companies want, before they begin drilling in the Arctic Ocean is an element of certainty.

Environmental groups also want the treaty signed, but for completely different reasons. They say the Law of the Sea contains strong environmental protections for the world's oceans, and as long as the U.S. remains outside of the treaty, it has no say in how those protections are implemented.

But opponents of the treaty say signing on to international laws means you also have to abide by them -- and can be sued if you don't. David Ridenour is with the National Center for Public Policy Research.

DAVID RIDENOUR: If we are not viewed as complying with some of the environmental standards that are laid out in the Law of the Sea treaty, environmental activists can actually take it to U.S. domestic court.

Ridenour says any gains in energy reserves would quickly be swamped by liabilities. The U.S. accounts for the majority of the world's greenhouse gas emissions -- he says that makes it the obvious target for lawsuits claiming damages to the ocean ecosystem.

I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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