I recently wrote a short piece for Seed about the Law of the Sea — a piece of legislation that has been held up in the US Senate for the past 25 years, and which, if ratified, could have a major impact on ocean health.

The treaty — which was given a thumbs-up in October by the US Foreign Relations Committee and now awaits ratification in the Senate — declares most of earth’s vast ocean floor to be the "common heritage of mankind," placing it under UN aegis "for the benefit of mankind as a whole."

That language has some people running scared. The treaty recently earned some scathing critique in the Wall Street Journal:

A greater danger to the U.S. lies in the imputed powers of the treaty to override our sovereign control of U.S. land and the air above it. Part XII, Section 5, Article 207 "Pollution from land-based sources" includes "rivers, estuaries, pipelines and outfall structures." Its paragraph 5 would require that our "Laws, regulations, ….shall include those designed to minimize, to the fullest extent possible, the release of noxious substances …. into the marine environment." But who decides how extensive need be "the fullest extent possible"? A U.N. Tribunal, packed with third-world U.S.-loathers, responding to a lawyer hired by Hugo Chavez?

Despite this fear-mongering from the far right, the treaty is likely to be ratified in the coming year. But it’s not because everyone from President Bush to the Defense Department to the CEO of Shell has suddenly gone blue-green. It’s because the Law of the Sea also sets the standards under which nations can extend their normal 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): if the government can come up with solid geological data proving that the continental shelf actually stretches beyond 200 miles, it can claim that region as well (this is same legal framework underpinning the Arctic land-grab).

By recognizing the Law of the Sea, the US stands to gain access to oil, natural gas, and other natural resources on a chunk of ocean floor larger than the 48 contiguous states combined. And in places like Alaska, where parts of the oil-rich continental shelf stretch up to 600 miles out, that translates into a whole lotta money.

With substantial support from all but a few outspoken Senate Republicans (like Jesse Helms and James Inhofe), US ratification of the Law of the Sea is almost a certainty. Which way the balance will tip for the health of the oceans is still anyone’s guess.