Towards the end of this month, the Philippines will send an official delegation to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) at the United Nations to pursue its claim to sovereign rights to the natural resources of the extended continental shelf (ECS) in the Benham Rise Region. This is an area of the seabed located east of Luzon on the Pacific coast.
Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS, all coastal states are entitled to a continental shelf consisting of the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that comprise a natural prolongation of their land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin. At minimum, the continental shelf area is deemed to legally extend to up to 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the territorial sea is measured, as long as there is no neighboring state with which the shelf area might overlap. But since the shape and breadth of the continental margin is an entirely natural formation, it is possible for the continental margin to extend beyond 200 nautical miles in breadth. In those cases, the coastal state may submit a claim for an “extended” continental shelf.
The purpose of the submission process is to delineate and separate the ECS from the deep ocean floor. Such a claim must be based on scientific evidence, primarily comprised of data and information on the underwater topography and geology of the area being claimed. The claim is to be submitted to the CLCS, a scientific body created by the UNCLOS and comprised primarily of hydrographers and geologists. The function of the CLCS is to ensure that the evidence used by a coastal state to justify its claim meets very high standards of scientific accuracy and validity. In a sense, it is a body that ensures quality control. It is not an adjudicating or approving body.
Coastal states find it in their national interest to claim ECS areas in addition to their 200- nautical mile continental shelf and exclusive economic zone because of the natural resources that they contain. Continental shelves contain virtually all of the offshore petroleum resources, and host huge deposits of mineral resources such as gas hydrides and hydrates, manganese nodules, rare earth metals, and offshore minerals. In addition, there are also many living resources, particularly sedentary species, yet to be fully catalogued or discovered, which could be a treasure trove of genetic resources that can be used to produce new pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and nutritional products.
Should a state fail to claim for an ECS entitlement, the area will be placed under the jurisdiction of the International Seabed Authority, another body created by UNCLOS, which will manage the resources therein for the common heritage of mankind. Thus, in making an ECS submission, the Philippines pursue its national interest by securing for itself resources for the future. It also demonstrates its strong determination, capability, and political will to assert its rights under the UNCLOS. A favorable recommendation regarding the Philippine ECS claims will enrich the national patrimony and endow the Filipino people with a perpetual legacy.
As early as the year 2002, activities were initiated to prepare the Philippines for the eventual filing of submissions. An inter-agency study group comprised of the academe and technical agencies identified the Benham Rise Region and West Philippine Sea as potential ECS areas. It took a while longer to confirm the initial studies, but coordinated technical, legal and diplomatic work to implement the initial study’s recommendations went into full swing in May 2007. A massive effort ensued among government agencies and academic institutions. Led by the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), an agency attached to the DENR, they assembled, collected, assessed, and evaluated data and information from multiple disciplines and publications. These included hydrographic and bathymetric surveys, geological and structural maps, magnetic anomaly data, seismic reflection data, paleomagnetic data, earthquake distributions, gravity anomaly data, and geochemical data. The research effort culminated in the filing of the Benham Rise submission on 08 April 2009, a month ahead of the deadline.
The ECS in the Benham Rise Region is a large seabed area encompassing 133,000 square kilometers, or nearly half the land area of the country. The ECS team has established that it is morphologically connected to the Luzon landmass through what are called the Bicol and Palanan Saddles. This connection extends approximately 300 nautical miles eastward on account of two outcrops that are called the Narra and Molave Spurs. The outer limits were drawn in accordance with Article 76 of UNCLOS and the technical and scientific guidelines of the CLCS. The executive summary of the submission was posted in the official website of the CLCS on the day it was submitted. The Philippines did not receive any formal objection or protest against the claim from any other coastal state.
The Benham Rise submission is an extensive work comprised of three parts. The first is an executive summary, containing the overview of the legal, technical, and scientific bases of the claim. The second part, which is the main body of the submission, contains the details and analysis of the technical and scientific data and information that was submitted as evidence of the Philippine claim. It is kept confidential. The third part is comprised of extensive annexes containing additional data and information about the data, research methods, scientific literature, maps, charts, tables, and more figures that were employed in the analysis.
In making the Benham Rise submission, the Philippines expressly stated that it reserves its right to make ECS submissions in other areas in the future. Under the rules of the CLCS, “partial” submissions are allowed when the other ECS areas are disputed.