Thank goodness Benham Rise is found at the coastal region of Isabela and Aurora provinces in the East and not somewhere in the West where China’s nine-dash line lay claim to almost all of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

What am I talking about?

Well, Benham Rise is an undersea region that was between 40 and 2000 meters below the waterline when it was discovered in 1933 by an American geologist surnamed Benham.

The Philippines is now claiming the area after having proven that it is indeed part and, in fact, an extension of the country’s eastern continental shelf.

The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines the continental shelf as “the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea” up to 370 km (200 nautical miles) from the archipelagic baseline. An extended continental shelf goes farther than 370 km.

“We have submitted a claim under (UNCLOS) sometime in late 2008. We got a reply from the UN lately (asking us) to answer some questions. They intend to pass a resolution sometime in mid-2012 to approve our claim (that it is) part of the Philippine continental shelf,” Environment Secretary Ramon Jesus Paje said, in a statement, after the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) formally submitted its proposed P16.99-billion (US$40 million) budget for 2012 to the Senate finance committee.

According to Paje the area being claimed could translate to a gain of 13 million hectares in additional territory, an area slightly smaller than Luzon, should the United Nations decide favorably on it

What is very encouraging and promising is that studies conducted by the DENR for the past five years indicate large deposits of methane in solid form. This observation was confirmed by the National Mapping Resource Information Agency, which also reported the existence of solid methane.

Paje said gas deposits in the area would enable the country to achieve energy sufficiency.

This development prompted Sen. Franklin Drilon to say that once the UNCLOS establishes that Benham Rise is part of the Philippines, “we would have legal basis to enter into exploration agreements with private companies to explore…(the area’s) resources.”

Drilon added that a favorable UNCLOS declaration would mean “increasing our territory from present 30 million hectares to possibly 43 million” with the inclusion of Benham Rise.

The Philippines has filed before the United Nations a claim over Benham Rise, an extinct volcanic ridge off t­he east coast of Luzon, beating the May 13 deadline for states to submit claims over their extended continental shelves.

The Philippine delegation deposited the claim with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in New York City on April 8, making clear it was only a “partial submission.”

This means that other submissions, including those over disputed territories, would be made later. The disputed Kalayaan Island Group, which part of the Spratly Islands, and Scarborough Shoal are also said to be part of the country’s extended continental shelf and are believed to contain oil, natural gas, minerals and polymetals.

By filing the claim over Benham Rise, which is undisputed territory, the government has stopped the clock on the UN deadline and buys time to sort out border issues with its neighbors over the Kalayaan islands and Scarborough Shoal.

“As a gesture of good faith, the Philippines makes this partial submission in order to avoid creating or provoking maritime boundary disputes where there are none, or exacerbating them where they may exist, in areas where maritime boundaries have not yet been delimited between opposite or adjacent coastal States,” said the government in its partial submission.

The UN defines the continental shelf as the “the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea” up to 200 nautical miles from the archipelagic baseline. A conti­nental shelf that goes farther than 200 nautical miles is called the extended continental shelf.

Claim to Benham Rise
The Philippine claim over Ben­ham Rise was prepared long before Congress enacted Republic Act 9522, or the Archipelagic Baselines Law, whose constitutionality is being questioned in the Supreme Court.

The Benham Rise Region is bounded by the Philippine Basin on the north and east, and by Luzon on the west and south. The submission asserted that Benham Rise is an extension of the Philippines’ continental shelf based on seismic, magnetic, gravity and other geological data collected.

The executive summary of the Philippine submission said the baselines used in the partial submission conform with the requirements of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and were used as the basis for delineating the maritime territorial and jurisdictional zones, including the continental shelf.

It was Philippine Ambassador to the UN Hilario Davide who filed the country’s partial submission with the commission. Among those who traveled to New York for the submission were lawyer Henry Bensurto, secretary general of the Center for Maritime and Ocean Affairs of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, and Ambassador Minerva Falcon, head of the department’s Foreign Service Institute.

A Philippine delegation is again expected to travel to New York to deposit the rest of the submissions in August, when the commission meets en banc.

Within UN rules

Bensurto said in an interview before leaving for New York that UN rules allow a partial submission. The government’s executive summary quoted the UN commission rules of procedure that “partial submissions may there­fore be made by a single coastal State for areas of its continental shelf that are not the subject of a maritime boundary dispute or a future maritime boundary delimitation.”

Galo Carrera-Hurtado of Mexico, a commissioner of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, helped the Philippines prepare its submission.

The Benham Rise Region is not subject to any maritime boundary disputes, claims or controversies, the executive summary said.

The country’s west coast facing the South China Sea is another matter. The Archipelagic Baselines Law has redrawn the country’s outer limits and from there, its extended continental shelf and exclusive economic zones overlap with Japan, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Palau, Malaysia and Indonesia.

All these overlaps projected from the newly enacted baseline law will have to be subject to border delimitation agreements before a complete and final submission to the UN is made.

Bensurto said that if an agreement is reached in border talks, then the Philippines could submit a claim unilaterally or jointly with the country concerned.

“For the controversial areas we don’t give up any claim, but we allow time, process, diplomacy or whatever tools are available to resolve it because anyway that is not going to be subject to any deadline,” he said. “So we just . . . do a partial submission in an area that is noncontroversial, nondisputed because if we insist to submit on contested areas nothing will happen, it will just be shelved.”

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