The purpose of the Bill is to provide the statutory framework for the exploration and exploitation of the natural resources of this country's part of the continental shelf, that is the sea bed and subsoil outside its territorial waters to where the sea bed falls to the ocean floor. The concept that a State might have exclusive rights to explore and exploit the natural resources of the continental shelf adjacent to its coast assumed growing importance after the last war. Technological advances were making it possible to explore and exploit such natural resources, but considerable uncertainty existed in international law as to the precise rights of individual States to the parts of the continental shelf adjoining their shores. At the request of the United Nations, the International Law Commission carried out a study of the problem with a view to bringing the definition and control of these rights within the ambit of international law. The Report of the International Law Commission was considered by the International Conference on the Law of the Sea, 1958, which was convened at Geneva by the United Nations, and this resulted in the drafting of the Convention on the Continental Shelf.
The Convention was signed by this country's delegates, subject to ratification by the Government, but has not yet been ratified. The Convention came into force internationally in 1964, after being ratified by 22 countries. To date the Convention has been ratified by 37 of the 46 countries which signed it, including the West European countries Britain, France, Denmark, Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden.
The Convention clarifies the position in international law regarding the continental shelf, deals with the allocation of the shelf between adjacent States or States whose coasts are opposite each other and defines the right of the adjacent coastal State to explore and exploit the natural resources of its particular area of shelf, subject to the State assuming certain obligations. The continental shelf is defined as the sea bed and subsoil of the submarine area adjacent to the coast but outside the territorial waters to a depth of 200 metres or beyond that limit where the depth of the waters permits exploration. The natural resources covered by the Convention are defined as mineral, including oil and gas, and other nonliving resources of the sea and subsoil. together with living organisms belonging to sedentary species. I might add that this definition excludes all swimming fish. Under the Convention, the rights the coastal State may exercise over its area of continental shelf are limited to such rights as are necessary for the exploration and exploitation of its natural resources. These rights do not amount to full sovereignty which would be inconsistent with the legal status of the waters above the shelf as high seas and of the air space above these waters. The exercise of the rights must not interfere unduly with navigation, the laying or maintenance of submarine cables or pipelines, conservation of the living resources of the sea or with fundamental oceanographic or scientific research carried out with the intention of open publication.
While the potential of the natural resources of the sea bed has long been recognised, the exploration and exploitation of these resources did not become of real economic significance in most parts of the world until quite recently. The development of these resources has been made possible only by notable advances in technology and it is still a very difficult and hazardous operation compared with similar work on dry land. Metallic ores under the floor of the sea bed may still be developed only by driving shafts and tunnels from adjoining land and, in view of the inconvenience and the high cost of their exploitation, these minerals would not appear to possess much potential significance at present. Petroleum and gas are, probably, the resources of greatest value and potential to be found in continental shelf areas and some spectacular progress has already been made in the exploitation of these off-shore deposits in many parts of the world.
I should mention, however, that the sea bed is not specially favoured with deposits of oil or gas as compared with adjoining land areas. In general, the mineral resources of the continental shelf are similar to those of the contiguous land area. In European waters the outstanding example of submarine exploration is the search for gas and oil in the North Sea. The potentialities of this area had long been recognised but it was the discovery of a huge gas field in the adjoining land area of Northern Holland in 1959 which gave rise to the present intensive exploration, which has yielded such promising results. Of growing importance is the dredging from the sea floor of sands and gravels for use as concrete aggregate and of banks of shells and other organic material for use as lime and fertiliser.
This country's area of continental shelf includes half the Irish Sea area and an area of Atlantic shelf extending about 200 miles off the south west coast and 165 miles off the west coast. These are very approximate indications of the extent of the area but it will, very probably, exceed the size of the national territory. The amount of geological information available about our shelf area is very little and it is not possible to give at this stage any real indication of the exploitable resources likely to be found there.
Lest spectacular success elsewhere should give rise to too much optimism as to the potential of our area of shelf, I think I should point out that the results of the search for oil and natural gas carried out over the whole country and the territorial waters by a group of American companies have not been encouraging and the limited geological information at present available does not suggest the presence in our area of shelf of gas deposits comparable with those discovered in the North Sea. Some oil companies have, however, indicated an interest in exploring our area of shelf which suggests that the area has possibilities for oil and gas and there is no reason why we should not entertain hopes of success. We know that sand and gravel aggregate is present in great abundance in the many banks and shoals fringing our east coast and beds of organic mud of possible use as fertiliser have been noted off the west coast.
While the potential of our area of shelf must be regarded as largely unknown at present, the important fact is that technological advances have now made the exploration of this vast area possible and such exploration offers the exciting possibility of locating valuable resources, the exploration of which could prove to be of great benefit to our economy. It is, therefore, considered desirable that we should now provide a statutory framework for the exploration and exploitation of the natural resources of the area. We will then be in a position to grant licences and leases to competent parties desirous of exploring and exploiting the resources of our area of shelf.
As I already pointed out, the rights which the coastal State may exercise over its area of continental shelf do not amount to full sovereignty. Our existing laws could not, therefore be taken as applying automatically to our area of the shelf and it is necessary to extend the application of a number of existing statutes to the area so as to provide a basis of law and order for operations there. Much of the Bill is concerned with the extension of the application of these statutes. The interests of many Departments are concerned, and the Bill has been drafted in consultation with these Departments.
The Bill provides that the Government may by Order designate the area of continental shelf over which the rights which accrue to the State will be exercised. These rights are vested in and exercisable by the Minister for Industry and Commerce except where the Government may by directions vest the rights in another Minister. The rights relating to minerals, oil and gas will be exercised by the Minister for Industry and Commerce and if the exploration or exploitation of any other natural resources, such as sedentary fisheries, should arise at some future date the Government will by direction provide for the exercise of the rights by the appropriate Minister.
We are applying the provisions of the Minerals Development Act, 1940 and the Petroleum and other Minerals Development Act, 1960, which govern mineral and petroleum exploration and exploitation in the land area and territorial waters, to similar operations in the shelf area thus providing a legal framework for the grant of exploration licences and exploitation facilities to operators in the area.
Provision is made for the extension of criminal and civil law to installations in designated areas and waters within 500 metres of such installations and in the case of other parts of designated areas, to any act or omission arising out of the exploration or exploitation of the natural resources of the areas and for the prosecution of offences taking place in the shelf area.
The Bill also provides for the safety of navigation and installations in the shelf area and for the prevention of the pollution of the sea from pipe lines or installations.
The provisions of the Submarine Telegraph Act, 1885 which deals with the wilful or negligent breaking or injuring of cables or pipelines, are being extended to all cables and pipelines and the provisions of the Wireless Telegraphy Acts, 1926 and 1956, which relate to the control of and interference with wireless telegraphy, are being extended to wireless apparatus on or near installations.
Provision is also made for the extension of insurance cover under the Social Welfare Acts and the Insurance (Intermittent Unemployment) Acts to persons engaged in exploration or exploitation in the designated shelf areas.
I am sure that the Senators feel, as I do, that the exploration and exploitation of the natural resources of our continental shelf area is highly desirable and I hope that they will agree that this measure will provide a satisfactory legal framework for the carrying out of such work.