The US Grew By The Size Of Two Californias Last Year: Good For Clean Tech, Could Lead To Conflict

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At the end of 2023, the United States announced a pretty big land grab. But, unlike Russia or China, all of the land grabbed in the announcement lies under hundreds (or more) feet of water at the bottom of the ocean, so nobody’s going to war over it. At least not yet. In this article, I’ll talk about what was announced and how it will likely lead to both improvements in clean technologies and conflict with other countries in the future.

The Extended Continental Shelf

When I say the United States grew, it wasn’t just by a tiny amount. The land gained (at least at the bottom of the ocean) was as big as Egypt, two Californias, or about 67 billion classic Volkswagen Beetles. For countries using the metric system instead of things like Californias or VW Beetles, that’s just a little over a million square kilometers (292,000 square nautical miles, or around 387,000 square statute miles).

However you measure it, that’s a pretty big expansion. But nobody’s up in arms over it because no humans live there. About the only thing you’ll find in these areas are crabs, and they’re always crabby, so nothing changes there.

The reason the United States was able to do this was the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The US is not a signatory of the convention, but this announcement will be respected by all of the countries that are, and many that aren’t, because it’s US policy to respect the convention despite not officially ratifying it.

In this particular case, the issue is the Extended Continental Shelf (ECS). It’s easiest to understand a country’s oceanic claims like an onion. On land, a country has full sovereignty. This sovereignty and total control extends out 12 nautical miles (sorry, I’ve done all the unit conversions I’m willing to do for one article) beyond the shore. After that, a country has an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles, where they don’t control who’s allowed to pass through, but do keep control over the extraction of economic resource (including oil, fishing, mining, etc).

But, there’s another category (the outermost layer of the onion), the ECS. This only covers any areas where the continental shelf extends out beyond the 200 nautical mile EEZ, and it only covers the seabed. Anybody can fish or use the surface there, as the water column doesn’t fall under territorial control. But, anything attached to the seafloor or under it is owned by the country claiming the ECS.

After extensive oceanic imaging and surveying, the US government was able to make the case for claiming ECS territory in several areas of the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans.

Image by the US State Department (public domain)

Why The US Is Doing This

The motivations for doing this are all about resource extraction.

The obvious one is fossil fuels. The Arctic ECS expansion covers what are likely vast oil reserves that could be the largest remaining on the planet. So, it was about time to bring “freedom” to the Arctic as usual, right? But, there are also vast natural gas deposits that the United States doesn’t want Russia claiming or taking by force.

But clean technologies also have a lot to gain from these expansions into the seafloor. In the Arctic alone, there are vast unexploited reserves of rare earth minerals, wind energy, tidal energy, and geothermal resources. Elsewhere in the Arctic, Russia already extracts 40% of the world’s palladium, 20% of global diamonds, 15% of the platinum, 11% of the cobalt, about a tenth of global nickel, as well as almost equal shares of tungsten and zinc. So, there’s no doubt that these areas will yield valuable supplies for clean technology supply chains.

Altogether, the new ECS area likely covers about 1/3 of these Arctic resources, making for what could be a serious haul based on Alaskan land territory and continental shelf.



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Russia Probably Won’t Be Nice About This Forever

Most potential points of conflict with claims in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico are either settled by previous agreements or are unlikely to lead to hostility due to friendliness with those in disagreement. I mean, we aren’t likely to go to war with Canada over slivers of Arctic seabed.

But, Russia’s government isn’t polite or sane like the Canadian government.

To any reasonable observer, the purchase of Alaska was a fair deal and one that’s long settled. But, idiots on Russian state TV and other Russian media regularly bring up Alaska as an example of US imperialism or some sort of swindle pulled on Russia. This is undoubtedly an attempt to distract the Russian population from far more important domestic problems caused by the incompetent and often downright evil leaders running the place, but Putin may actually be getting high on his own supply (believing his own propaganda).

What has to make the sale of Alaska really sting now is the resources that the Tsars didn’t know were there. Oil is a big one, obviously, but every other kind of mining has advanced greatly during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Now, extended seabed claims based on ownership of Alaska likely will make kleptocrats like Putin want to find a way to steal that seabed.

Should Russia destroy itself trying to expand into Europe, the United States could find itself debating over Arctic claims with a greater adversary: China. While Russia is mad about Alaska, Chinese leaders still very much have hard feelings over the “Century of Humiliation,” or a time when western powers forced unequal treaties on the weak and failing Qing dynasty. One of the biggest losses of land was at the hand of the Russians, including vast stretches of Siberia, Mongolia, and more.

Image by SilverStar54, CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Depending on how much land they want back, and whether they want the land back with a bunch of interest, current Russian Arctic and Bering Sea claims could end up in China’s possession. Given aggressive behavior over the South China Sea, I don’t think it’s at all ridiculous to say that the Party would try to get all they could after taking a bite out of a weakened Russia. 

Bottom line: Don’t think that a lack of serious debate over these ECS claims today means that conflict over them might not happen later, especially if the areas start to produce big money and geopolitical advantage later.


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