Continental shelf – questions and answers
Article | Last updated: 03/11/2020 | Ministry of Foreign Affairs
What is the continental shelf and what rights do the coastal states have?Here you will find questions and answers about the topic.
What is the continental shelf?
It is the submarine prolongation of a coastal state’s landmass to the outer edge of the continental margin. The continental shelf falls under the coastal state’s jurisdiction. Areas beyond the continental margin are, however, part of the international seabed area.
What rights do coastal states have in this area?
Coastal states have an exclusive right to explore and exploit both living and non-living resources on their continental shelf.
What duties and responsibilities do coastal states have on their continental shelf?
Coastal states have a duty to safeguard the environment on their continental shelf, and an obligation to let other states use the shelf for certain purposes, such as the laying of pipelines and cables.
How are the size and outer limits of the continental shelf established?
All coastal states have a continental shelf that stretches 200 nautical miles to sea (1 nautical mile = 1.852 km). Many states therefore do not need to collect more specific data or have the outer limit of their continental shelf considered.
However, states that have submarine geological prolongations, continental shelves, that extend beyond 200 nautical miles have to document these. This information is submitted to an international commission based in New York (the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, or CLCS), which has to give its approval. Only then can the coastal state establish the outer limits of its continental shelf with final and binding effect.
Where can the rules on all of this be found?
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) is often referred to as the constitution for the oceans. It has 165 parties (February 2019). The Convention’s most important principles are considered to be customary law, and thus also binding on non-parties. States’ rights and obligations in relation to the continental shelf follow from the Convention’s provisions.
How is the CLCS constituted? What does it do?
The CLCS is made up of 21 geologists, geophysicists and hydrologists who assess the scientific and technical validity of the data submitted by each coastal state.
How does the CLCS operate?
The CLCS is neither a judicial nor a political body. It gives technical advice and guidance to states, and offers opinions on the data and analyses submitted by coastal states on the basis of the technical and objective criteria set out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The CLCS considers the documentation submitted by the coastal state and recommends where the outer limits of the continental shelf should lie. When the submission of a coastal state is received, the CLCS assigns the matter to a dedicated sub-commission for consideration. CLCS members from the coastal state or its neighbours may not sit on the sub-commission.
Is there an upper limit on the extent of continental shelves?
Yes. Regardless of the rule used to determine the extent of the continental shelf, absolute limits apply. The continental shelf may not extend beyond 350 nautical miles (648 km) or, alternatively, more than 100 nautical miles (185 km) beyond the point at which the seabed lies at a depth of 2 500 metres. The latter alternative only applies to submarine elevations that are natural components of the continental margin.
How is the extent of the continental shelf established within these limits?
There are two methods, both of which are based on the seabed’s topography (i.e. physical features). One draws an outer boundary 60 nautical miles from the base of the continental shelf slope. The other is based on the thickness of deposits (i.e. sediment thickness). Coastal states may choose the calculation method that gives them the largest possible shelf.
What is the connection with the 200-mile exclusive economic zone?
Coastal states have the right to establish economic zones extending 200 nautical miles from their shores and, since these states automatically also have continental shelves extending the same distance, economic zones and continental shelves often overlap. However, many coastal states, including Norway, have shelves that extend beyond their economic zones. In its 200-mile economic zone, the coastal state has sovereign rights to the living resources in the water column, while on its continental shelf it has sovereign rights to the resources on the seabed and in its subsoil.
Does the CLCS deal with delimitation lines?
The CLCS’s Rules of Procedure do not allow it to influence or prejudice matters related to the delimitation of the shelf between two or more states. The CLCS deals only with the outer limits of the shelf, and not bilateral boundaries.
Has Norway become larger?
Norway has not claimed any new areas in any of the two submissions made. The extent of the continental shelf is determined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Norway and other coastal states already have jurisdiction over their continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. The process involves solely the exact delimitation of the outer limits of the continental shelf lie.
What other states have submitted documentation to the CLCS?
Updated information on the submissions by Norway and other states can be found on the website of the UN’s Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea.
Which deadline applied? What was Norway’s deadline?
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provides that each coastal state with a shelf beyond 200 nautical miles is obliged to submit documentation to the CLCS ten years after the Convention came into force for the state in question, at the latest. As it became clear that many states, especially developing countries, would be unable to meet this deadline, the parties to the Convention decided that no country’s deadline would expire before 13 May 2009. It was also decided that States could keep the deadline by submitting so-called preliminary information indicative of the outer limits of its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. The Convention came into force for Norway in 1996, but our deadline was thus 13 May 2009.
Do coastal states lose their right to their continental shelf if they fail to submit their documentation before the deadline?
Coastal states’ inherent right to their continental shelf is a fundamental principle of the Law of the Sea. Failure to meet the deadline is a breach of the state’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but will not necessarily result in the coastal state losing its right to continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.
Norway’s submission covering continental shelf off mainland Norway, Svalbard and Jan Mayen
How large is the Norwegian continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles?
According to the recommendations adopted by CLCS on 27 March 2009, the Norwegian continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles off mainland Norway, Svalbard and Jan Mayen covers areas measuring some 235 000 square kilometres.
At what depths does the Norwegian continental shelf lie?
In some areas, the Norwegian shelf lies at depths of up to 3 000 to 4 000 metres.
Is the North Pole on the Norwegian continental shelf?
No. Norway has some continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles north of Svalbard, but it is of limited size. Norway’s continental shelf does not lie anywhere near the North Pole.
Did Norway cooperate with neighbouring countries in connection with its submission?
Norway cooperated closely with its neighbours Russia, Iceland, Denmark / Greenland and the Faroe Islands in preparing the submission for the Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea and Norwegian Sea. There was an open dialogue, and data concerning areas of mutual interest was exchanged.
What about Svalbard?
Norway’s submission to the CLCS, and the recommendations from CLCS of 2009, cover all of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from mainland Norway, Svalbard and Jan Mayen.
Does Svalbard have its own shelf?
Like all land areas, Svalbard’s coasts generate continental shelf. In Svalbard’s case, it is also clear from all maps of the seabed that a continuous continental shelf extends north from mainland Norway and around and past Svalbard. The geological situation is therefore not significantly different from that of the Shetland Islands on the UK shelf, or that of Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land on the Russian shelf. In geological terms, it would therefore not be appropriate to talk about Svalbard having its own, continental shelf.
Can the shelf areas around Svalbard correctly be described as part of the Norwegian continental shelf?
It is clear that Svalbard is part of Norway, and no one questions that. All continental shelf areas that originate from Norwegian territory are Norwegian in the sense that they are subject to Norwegian jurisdiction. Accordingly, the shelf areas around Svalbard are part of the Norwegian continental shelf.
But isn’t there disagreement about the scope of the Svalbard Treaty?
It is true that there are differing views on the geographical scope of certain provisions of the 1920 Treaty of Paris in respect of the maritime areas off the archipelago. However, this has nothing to do with the outer limits of the continental shelf. Where the outer limits of the continental shelf around Svalbard lie has no bearing on the question of what rules should apply to the shelf within those limits.
What is the difference of opinion about the Svalbard Treaty about?
The 1920 Treaty of Paris confirms that Norway has full and absolute sovereignty over the Archipelago of Svalbard. By virtue of its sovereignty over Norwegian territory, Norway also has sovereign rights over continental shelf areas under international law. The only matters that could be open to interpretation in relation to the Treaty concern the geographical scope of equal treatment rules and tax limitations. But that question relates to how Norway is to exercise its authority, not whether the continental shelf areas are subject to Norwegian jurisdiction.
Did Norway’s submission strengthen its position on the Svalbard Treaty?
Norway’s submission neither strengthened nor weakened any views on the Treaty of Paris of 1920. That is a completely separate issue, which has nothing to do with shelf’s outer limits. In fact, Norway, as a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, has not only rights but also duties and responsibilities in relation to the continental shelf. The Convention came into force for Norway in 1996, and rests on the assumption that any earlier treaty obligations only apply to the extent that they are consistent with the requirements of the Convention. Norway therefore applies the rules of the Law of the Sea fully and in accordance with its obligations under international law. This has nothing to do with the Svalbard Treaty.
Norway’s submission covering continental shelf off Bouvetøya and Dronning Maud Land
What is Bouvetøya?
Bouvetøya is situated in the South Atlantic Ocean and is undisputed Norwegian territory. The island and the surrounding sea area is outside the geographical scope of the Antarctic Treaty, which covers the area south of 60°S latitude. It is a Norwegian dependency, i.e. a territory under Norwegian sovereignty but not part of the Kingdom of Norway. In accordance with Article 1 of the Constitution, the island is therefore not an inalienable part of the Kingdom. The area of the island is 49 square kilometres, and is thus larger than the Norwegian islands Hopen, Nøtterøy and Tjøme, or the Greek islands Skiathos and Patmos. In accordance with Regulations of 1971 (forskrift om fredning av Bouvetøya med tilliggende territorialfarvann som naturreservat), Bouvetøya and the surrounding territorial waters are a nature reserve.
What is the extent of the Norwegian continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles off Bouvetøya?
On 8 February 2019 the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved the Recommendations in regard to the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles off Bouvetøya. The Recommendations clarifies the outer limit of the Norwegian continental shelf off the island. This area beyond 200 nautical miles amounts to around 170 783 square kilometres. In total, the continental shelf off Bouvetøya is 612 523 square kilometres.
What is Dronning Maud Land?
Dronning Maud Land is part of the Antarctic continent and extends from 20°W to 45°E. Dronning Maud Land and Peter I Øy are the parts of the Antarctic to which Norway claims sovereignty. Both also have status as Norwegian dependencies, but as opposed to Bouvetøya, are subject to the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, under which the unresolved questions relating to sovereignty have been put on ice (see below).
Which other countries have claims to areas in the Antarctic?
Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand and the UK have also presented territorial claims in the Antarctic. However, no other countries have put forward claims to the Norwegian areas.
What is the Antarctic Treaty?
The Antarctic Treaty, which was opened for signature on 1 December 1959, establishes an extensive international cooperation to ensure that the area is used for peaceful purposes. It does not take any decision on the sovereignty claims, but sets out that the unresolved questions relating to sovereignty are to be put on ice for the duration of the treaty. Under Article IV, no activities are to be used as the basis for putting forward new claims while the treaty is in force, and existing claims are neither to be recognised nor disputed. Norway and the other countries claiming sovereignty have not given up their claims, but participate actively in the Antarctic cooperation, which i.a. includes scientific research and efforts to protect the environment.
But if the unresolved questions relating to sovereignty have been put on ice, how can Norway submit documentation on the continental shelf off Dronning Maud Land?
Continental shelf rights automatically follow from sovereignty over land. Norway and the other countries with claims take the view that sovereign rights connected to the continental shelf do not constitute a new claim, which the Antarctic Treaty prohibits. Hence, compliance with the Convention on the Law of the Sea’s requirement for the submission of documentation on the extent of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in this area does not go against the Antarctic Treaty. At the same time, it is important to protect the cooperation under the Antarctic Treaty. By requesting the CLCS not to consider the documentation for Dronning Maud Land, full respect for the Antarctic cooperation is ensured. Norway attaches great importance to this cooperation.
What is the response of Norway’s neighbouring states in the Antarctic to the Norwegian submission?
Dronning Maud Land borders the UK’s claim to the west and Australia’s claim to the east. Delimitation lines for the sea areas have not been agreed. However, both these states have indicated to Norway that they have no objections to documentation on the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles off Dronning Maud Land being included in the Norwegian submission.
How have the other parties to the Antarctic Treaty proceeded?
Information about other states’ submissions can be found on the website of the UN’s Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, including an overview of all the submissions to the CLCS.
Could petroleum activities be established on the continental shelf off Bouvetøya or Dronning Maud Land?
In accordance with the Regulations of 1971 mentioned above, Bouvetøya with territorial waters is a nature reserve. There are no plans to start exploration for petroleum in the continental shelf off Bouvetøya.
As referred to above, Dronning Maud Land is covered by the Antarctic Treaty. In 1991, a Protocol on Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty was signed. This Protocol prohibits mineral resource activities for at least 50 years after the Protocol enters into force. Consequently, exploration for and extraction of petroleum resources in the sea areas off Dronning Maud Land is not an option.