White House Adds Nearly 400,000 Square Miles to U.S. Continental Shelf

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Last week, the White House added nearly 250 million acres to the United States’ maritime claims, completing the largest administrative expansion since the establishment of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone in 1983. 

With the stroke of a pen, the Biden administration quietly added 385,000 square miles of seabed in the Pacific, Atlantic, Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean to an “extended continental shelf” territorial claim. The majority is off the coast of Alaska, and follows after Russia expanded its own demands for territorial recognition in Arctic waters. 

The largest single piece of the expansion is located north of Prudhoe Bay, covering areas of the seabed known as the Chukchi Shelf and the Canada Basin. The latter lies outside the “shelf” portion of the continental shelf: the Canada Basin has an average depth of about 12,500 feet, about two miles deeper than the common hydrographic definition of a continental shelf. (UNCLOS has no strict numerical definition of the shelf’s edge.)

Deep-sea mining is one reason to expand the claim, according to maritime law expert Prof. James Kraska.

“The US continental shelf has some 50 hard minerals required for the New Economy,” said Kraska, a professor of international maritime law at the US Naval War College. “[It] contains nodules rich in strategic minerals and rare earth elements needed for everything from green energy to the semiconductors that drive Artificial Intelligence. The US announcement on the US extended continental shelf (ECS) highlights American strategic interests in securing these hard minerals.”

Kraska noted that the U.S. is not a party to UNCLOS, and therefore cannot petition the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to validate American maritime claims. In the absence of Senate ratification of UNCLOS, the government has to fall back on making continental shelf claims unilaterally – and will have to resolve any possible disputes with other states on an ad-hoc basis. 

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