How’s this for a once-in-a-blue-moon scenario? Six major environmental groups endorse a sweeping international treaty strongly supported by the American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups.

Do you sea what I sea?

Photo: NOAA.

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On May 12, top dogs from the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Environmental Trust, Ocean Conservancy, and three other green organizations put their names on a political ad [PDF] published in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call appealing for ratification of the U.N.’s Law of the Sea treaty — an international accord that the American Petroleum Institute hails as “important to our efforts to develop domestic offshore oil and natural gas resources,” according to a large pull quote featured in the ad.

The oil and water folks, as it were, who have long refused to mix, have since been working alongside a broad range of other interest groups to convince Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to schedule a Senate vote on ratification of the Law of the Sea before Congress goes into summer recess.

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The agreement establishes rules governing uses of the world’s oceans — specifically, waters that are more than 200 nautical miles off coasts (waters closer to shore are considered an “exclusive economic zone” governed by the coastal country). The treaty charts out the jurisdictions, rights, and controls each coastal country has vis-‡-vis the military navigation, commercial exploitation, and environmental conservation of these far-flung seas, which are increasingly trafficked by the fishing, shipping, and energy industries, not to mention naval vessels.

Of particular interest to environmentalists are the treaty’s oversight laws for pollution and waste dumping, guidelines against overfishing, and protections for whales, dolphins, and other creatures of the deep.

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What appeals to the petroleum and mining industries is the right of access afforded by the treaty to mineral-rich nether-regions; U.S. companies can’t compete against foreign competitors for drilling and mining rights in international waters until the U.S ratifies the treaty.

More pressing still are the interests of the military: Officials from both the Defense Department and the State Department have testified on behalf of the Law of the Sea during Senate hearings, arguing that it’s vital for national security.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave unanimous approval to the treaty in February, but since then it’s made no progress toward full Senate approval.

Dick Lugar.

Photo: U.S. Senate.

Mark Helmke, an aide to the committee’s chair, Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), put it to Muckraker this way: “Any rational Beltway official — including the president, Colin Powell, and Condi Rice — will tell you that ratification of the treaty is critical to the strength of our Navy, our national security, our economy, and the global environment, and that the failure to ratify signals to the world that the United States flouts multilateralism.” Currently, 145 countries have signed onto the Law of the Sea, including every other member of the U.N. Security Council.

But there’s one U.S. constituency that doesn’t like the treaty — arch-conservatives who reject multilateralism in all its forms on ideological grounds. “Basically, we have a bunch of fringe, armchair, isolationist ideologues who are holding up this treaty, and the Bush administration’s political office has made a calculated decision to let them have their way,” Helmke said.

These right-wingers — who include Frank Gaffney, a darling of the arms industry who heads up the Center for Security Policy, and Phyllis Schlafly, director of the Eagle Forum and a longtime pillar of the U.S. uber-nationalist movement — are well-organized politically. “They get picked up by all the conservative radio talk-show hosts who fan the flames on this thing and dish out scare tactics that the U.N. is going to take over every little fishing pond in the world,” Helmke told Muckraker.

The armchair isolationists also have direct access to the office of Bush political strategist Karl Rove: “These guys have been quiet while the White House invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and even when it recently decided to play nice with the U.N. But they’re at the end of their tether. They basically went to Bush’s political strategists and said, ‘We’ve been good boys in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we need something to raise money off of, to motivate our [anti-U.N.] constituency in election year.’ And they were given this.”

Ironically, it was the United States that originally took the lead on drafting this latest Law of the Sea convention in 1973 under Richard Nixon (two previous such conventions were implemented in the 1950s and ’60s). But by the time the negotiations were completed in 1982, Ronald Reagan was in office and he declined to sign on because of pressure from ultra-conservatives and specific objections to deep seabed mining provisions. “The beef that the right-wingers have is that the U.N. commission requires all nations who are accessing deep-sea minerals to pay royalties that provide proceeds for a global fund,” said Debbie Reed, legislative director for NET.

Bill Clinton, for his part, signed the treaty in 1994 but was unable to get it ratified because Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) — then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — was hell-bent on sabotaging it. When Lugar succeeded Helms in 2003, the Navy exhorted him to push the treaty through. Lugar has since held two Senate hearings on the matter and met twice with Condoleezza Rice to try and make it happen.

It wasn’t that the Bushies weren’t on board: They added the treaty to an official list of international accords they wanted the Senate to ratify last February, and top-level administration officials have openly extolled the agreement. But when push came to shove, the administration was hesitant: “After Lugar talked with Rice,” Helmke told Muckraker, “the word came back very meekly from the National Security Council saying, ‘We will continue to give lip service to this, but we won’t push it directly.'”

Bill Frist.

Photo: U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, Frist has refused to schedule a full Senate vote on the treaty.

“Frist is the new Helms,” said Reed. “He comes off as this friendly moderate, but he’s doing the right-wing dirty work.”

Behind the scenes, says Reed, Frist may be doing the bidding of the Bush administration’s political office, but it’s just as likely that Frist’s own office is responsible for the holdup. Frist has had two former Helms staffers on his team, and “he has consistently voted like a staunch unilateralist during his entire Senate career,” said Heather Hamilton, vice president for programs at Citizens for Global Solutions, an organization that advocates international cooperation and has been a staunch supporter of the Law of the Sea.

The repercussions of not joining the treaty could be immense: For one, Russia right now is trying to lay claim to deep seabeds beneath melting Arctic ice, which are newly accessible to drilling thanks to global warming. The treaty is scheduled to be amended this fall, and its members are begging the U.S. to come on board before then to put a stop to Russia’s bullying claims. Without a superpower, there’s no one to stand up to Russia in the negotiations.

“The ultimate irony is that these right-wingers have spent decades being vehemently anti-Soviet,” said Helmke, “and now they’re letting Russia take over Santa Claus land.”

A congressional aide who spoke to Muckraker on condition of anonymity said that Frist’s recalcitrance on this issue is irking moderate Republicans as well as Democrats: “Frist is supposed to be the leader of the Senate Republicans, but he’s doing the bidding of a radical few.” If Frist did decide to put it on the calendar, said the aide, “we could get well over the 70 votes necessary to pass this treaty. Guaranteed.”