A Senate committee last Wednesday approved an energy industry-backed "Law of the Sea" treaty that could enable producers to establish legal claims to greater oil and natural gas resources off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico.

If the treaty is ratified by the full Senate, the United States would join 154 countries and the European Community in the United Nations' "Law of the Sea" convention that settles disputes involving the world's oceans, environment and management of marine natural resources.

"The treaty provides a range of [economic] benefits. Prominent among these is a means to firmly establish our legal claims to the resources on the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles; off the coast of Alaska, our shelf may extend for 600 miles," said Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which approved the treaty by 17 to 4.

"The oil and gas industry is unanimous in support of the convention, as they seek the legal certainty needed to invest the dollars necessary to extract resources from the shelf," he said.

Ratification of the treaty will require a two-thirds vote by the Senate, which some say may be difficult to achieve due to the strong objections of Senate Republicans. The United States has signed the treaty, but it has languished in the Senate for 13 years without being ratified.

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