Why a barren rock in the Atlantic is the focus of an international battle of wills
AN ISOLATED pinnacle of granite, lashed by North Atlantic waves and gales off the British coast, Rockall has long been the focus of passionate territorial disputes. But talks this week between four nations are focusing on the sea or, more specifically, the oil and gas reserves that lie on the seabed around it.
The negotiations in Reykjavik involve the UK, Ireland, Iceland and Denmark (on behalf of the Faroes), which are seeking to forge an agreement to exploit the resources around the famous outcrop about 300 miles from their shores.
They hope eventually to divide up territorial rights to the vast area - some 422,000sq km, or about five times the land area of Ireland - and exploit its rich reserves. This will be determined by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The countries have until May 2009 to reach agreement.
It is part of a wider below-the-waves "land grab", which allows countries to qualify for "extended underwater territory" under a UN Law of the Sea Convention.
The options are for the countries to submit a joint bid or separate applications which agree on the division. The Rockall discussions will, however, avoid mention of the thorny issue of ownership of the islet on which the UK and Ireland still cannot agree.
The summit of an eroded volcano core, measuring just 19m high, 25m across and 30m wide, and home to gulls and gannets, periwinkles and other molluscs, was claimed by the British in 1955.
In 1971, the government passed an Act of Parliament incorporating Rockall into Inverness-shire.
During the 1980s, the adventurers John Ridgway and Tom McLean climbed the rock at separate times to confirm it to be a sovereign part of British territory.
But the Irish have not accepted the claim, insisting that Rockall is closer to Ireland. A spokesman for the Irish government's department of communications, energy and natural resources said yesterday: "The quadrilateral talks are about continental shelf rights in the Hatton/Rockall area, but Rockall, the actual rock, has absolutely no bearing on these discussions.
"The very mention of the name Rockall causes some confusion, but the existence of Rockall is irrelevant to these discussions as the rock does not itself generate any continental shelf claims. It is only inhabited islands that can generate claims.
"The area is to the north-west of Ireland, west of Scotland and south-west of the Faroes. Rockall happens to be slap-bang in the middle of that, but who owns it or who doesn't own it is irrelevant.
"The UK claims sovereignty over Rockall and Ireland currently disputes that, but that has absolutely no relation to the continental shelf discussions."
He added: "We shouldn't talk about any bonanzas or anything like that. These areas are quite a distance out into the Atlantic, where there are some of the harshest environments to operate oil and gas exploration."
A Foreign Office spokeswoman also stressed that the talks were not concerned with the territorial gain of the islet, while reiterating the UK's sovereignty.
She said: "These talks are aimed at submitting a joint claim, which will be of benefit to all four countries.
"The resource potential there is oil and/or gas. At the moment, there is little commercial interest in exploration, but that might change in future.
"Rockall is a separate issue to the Hatton/Rockall basin. There is no issue surrounding Rockall; the UK has sovereignty over it."
The Hatton/Rockall meetings over three days are part of wider moves by countries to lay claim to vast areas of the ocean in the search for new reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals.
Two Russian mini-submarines last month completed a hazardous voyage 2 miles to the floor of the Arctic Ocean, as part of the Kremlin's attempt to claim the energy wealth in the region. Areas around islands off India, Ascension Island and the Falklands are also all being earmarked for their potential.
The UK has made a joint bid with Ireland, France and Spain for an area known as the Celtic shift in the Bay of Biscay and will lay claim to a further three locations, in addition to Hatton/Rockall: around the Falklands - for which it may face competition from Argentina - Ascension Islands and the British Antarctic Territory.
The Foreign Office spokeswoman added: "Russia has already stated it will be staking a claim, but the flag-planting does not have any legal basis; it was more to publicise the fact they are to submit a claim."
By May 2009, countries can claim rights to areas up to 350 miles from land but on the same continental shelf. In other words, they must be able to show that the area in question is an extension of their own topography and an extension of what is naturally within its boundary, not just a speculative acquisition.
But the race for staking out the territories has angered environmental campaign group Greenpeace, which has previously protested at the continued exploration of deep-sea areas around Rockall. In 1997, activists landed on the island, stayed for 42 days and declared the rock the sovereign territory of "Waveland" in a protest against oil exploration in the Atlantic.
Charlie Kronick, the head of the energy team at Greenpeace UK, said: "The UK government bangs on and on regularly about how it is leading the fight on climate change, and the way we respond to climate change is to reduce emissions.
"We find it odd that, at the same time the government is making that claim, it is trying to increase its supply of fossil fuels. We feel there is a lack of fit between its position on climate change and what looks like being a new gold rush.
"It's a big prize. Oil prices are going up, demand is going up even faster and it's going to be a profitable business for the foreseeable future.
"But it's not good enough to say, 'We might as well exploit this because someone is going to do it eventually'. The best of climate science tells us that our global emissions need to peak by 2015. There are more than enough fossil fuels around to wreck the climate; what there is not nearly enough of are initiatives to save it."
LAW OF THE SEA
UNDER the Law of the Sea Convention (LSC) of 1982, a coastal state is automatically entitled to a continental shelf 200 nautical miles in breadth.
It may claim a broader shelf where it can show the natural continuation of its land territory under water actually extends beyond that limit. The LSC allows a coastal state to exercise sovereign rights over its continental shelf for the purpose of exploring and exploiting the natural resources of the seabed and subsurface.
Claims to extended shelf must be submitted to the UN commission on the limits of the continental shelf, and must be supported by scientific and technical data.
States seeking to claim a shelf beyond 200 nautical miles must make a submission to the commission within ten years of becoming a party to the convention. For Ireland, the UK and Iceland, the deadline for submissions is 2009 (Denmark became a party to the Law of the Sea Convention only recently).
The convention provides, however, where two or more states dispute claims to the same area of continental shelf, the commission may only consider submissions with the consent of all parties to the dispute.
Ireland has already received permission by the UN to extend the outer limits of its continental shelf by about 22,000 square miles in the Porcupine Abyssal Plain in the north-east Atlantic.
Along with the UK, France and Spain, it has also made a submission for the area known as Zone C in the Bay of Biscay.
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