Britain is preparing territorial claims on tens of thousands of square miles of the Atlantic Ocean floor around the Falklands, Ascension Island and Rockall in the hope of annexing potentially lucrative gas, mineral and oil fields .
"The Russians may be claiming the Arctic but the UK is claiming a large chunk of the Atlantic. Some states might ask why a big power is entitled to huge stretches of the ocean's resources thousands of miles away from its land, but that's the way the law is." - Martin Pratt, director of research at Durham University's international boundaries research unit .
Britain is accelerating its process of submitting applications to the UN - which is fraught with diplomatic sensitivities, not least with Argentina - before an international deadline for registering interests. Relying on detailed geological and geophysical surveys by scientists and hydrographers, any state can delineate a new "continental shelf outer limit" that can extend up to 350 miles from its shoreline. According to the convention on the law of the sea, applicant states may register their rights by "establishing the foot of the continental slope, by meeting the requirements stated for the thickness of sedimentary rocks".
Once demarcated, the ocean floor may then be claimed up to 60 nautical miles from the bottom of the continental slope. When territorial rights have been obtained, states have the right to extract any minerals, natural gas or oil discovered in the annexed seabed.
There is a deadline of May 2009 for claims from the UK and other countries to be submitted, although states that ratified the treaty later have more time
Greenpeace has described the process as a "land grab".
The Falklands claim has the most potential for acrimonious political fallout. Britain and Argentina fought over the islands 25 years ago, and the value of the oil under the sea in the region is understood to be immense: seismic tests suggest there could be up to 60 million barrels under the ocean floor. Britain has been granted licences for exploratory drilling around the islands within the normal 200-mile exploration limit and any new claim to UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf would extend territorial rights further into the Atlantic.
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