|Race for the sea.|
A fevered scramble for control of the world's seabed is going on - mostly in secret - at a little known office of the United Nations in New York.
Bemused officials are watching with a mixture of awe and suspicion as Britain and France stake out legal claims to oil and mineral wealth as far as 350 nautical miles around each of their scattered islands across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. It takes chutzpah. Not to be left out, Australia and New Zealand are carving up the Antarctic seas.
The latest bombshell to land on the desks of UN's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf is a stack of confidential documents from the British Government requesting an extension of UK territorial waters around Ascension Island, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha.
The three outposts between them draw big circles in the Mid and South Atlantic, covering unexplored zones that may one day offer deep reserves of crude oil and gas.
A similar request has already been made for eastward expansion from the Falklands and South Georgia - much to the fury of Argentina. "If the British do not change their approach, we shall have to interpret it as aggression," said President Nestor Kirchner, before he handed power to his wife Cristina.
Ascension Island - famed for its enormous green turtles - is a dusty cluster of 44 volcanoes, covered with cinder. It is barely big enough to host America's "Wideawake" airfield and a tracking station for Ariane 5 space rockets. First garrisoned by the British in 1815 to keep an eye on Napoleon, it now boasts 1,100 hardy souls. St Helena - the "Atlantic Alcatraz" - is yet more remote, if greener.
The forgotten relics of the Empire make Britain a player in the marine race. There are the waters off the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, already home to a clutch of oil exploration companies; the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific; Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean; and a string of outposts such as Montserrat, the Caymans, the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos, and Bermuda.
The French "Outre-Mer" is a bigger network - from the Isles Crozet to Saint-Paul and Kerguelen in the southern seas, to Clipperton off western Mexico. They too have been busy at the UN, requesting an extension of their zone off French Guiana and New Caledonia.
All the maritime powers are nibbling gingerly at the edges of Antarctica, though the Antarctic Treaty bans fresh claims on the world's last pristine landmass.
The two-page summary of Britain's submission to the UN gives little away. It merely notes that the UK is providing information on the limits of shelf "beyond 200 nautical miles", adding that there will be further requests. A Foreign Office spokesman said the motive was to "protect the environment".
Greenpeace demurs. "It is a grab for resources. These countries are in a panic about commodity prices and now view the seas as key to their national security," said Charlie Kronick, the group's climate chief.
The Law of the Sea allows the maritime powers to claim 200 miles of waters around their islands. They can win an extension to 350 miles if the geology of the seabed fits a set of complex technical conditions.
The requests are studied by a panel of world experts, and usually granted on a strict scientific basis. This is not conducted like the Eurovision Song Contest, where imperialists score "nul points".
The deadline expires in May 2009, so there is now a rush to stake out claims. If countries waive their right, the area from 200 to 350 miles automatically returns to the world community: claim it now, or lose it forever.
In a sense, the system is deeply unfair. China gets virtually nothing. Poor landlocked countries get absolutely nothing. Yet the old powers - after enjoying the fruit of imperial rule for four centuries - enjoy a second bite of the cherry. "The sea goes to the most powerful states that were able to colonise the remote parts of world. That's the way the law is," said Martin Pratt, head of the international boundaries unit at Durham University.
Nobody has ever explored these regions thoroughly for oil and minerals, although Mr Pratt said there was a burst of interest 20 years ago in "polymetallic nodules" - boulders of manganese, and such, on the sea floor. Commodity prices did not stay high enough to make it worthwhile investing, and the waters were mostly too deep.
That calculus is now changing fast as oil futures contracts for 2016 vault to $135 a barrel. The International Energy Agency warns that world output will fall far short of the estimated 116m barrels per day by 2030 unless there is massive investment.
The technology of deep-water drilling is improving in leaps and bounds. Three-dimensional seismic imaging can look through the salt canopies that cover up reserves and play havoc with exploration.
The ageing North Sea rigs drill to around 3,000ft: the Jack 2 test well, run by a consortium of oil companies, plunges through 7,000ft of water and 20,000ft of sea floor into the entrails of the earth below the Gulf of Mexico.
The state-of-the-art fields off Angola may soon be routinely drilling at near 9,000ft. It is no longer far-fetched to imagine rigs drilling as deep as 15,000ft, once oil companies learn to cope with crude gushing out at temperatures of 300C.
Shell and Lasmo explored the Falklands in the 1990s, but gave up when crude prices crashed to $10 a barrel. Nothing much came to light. Desire Petroleum, Rockhopper, Borders & Southern and Falkland Oil and Gas are all probing again. Desire plans to start drilling this year. "A working hydrocarbon system in the North Falkland Basin has been established," it said.
Dr Phil Richards from the British Geological Survey - who helped to prepare the UK's extension claim - doubts stories that the area could hold 60bn barrels of oil (Saudi Arabia purports to have 260bn).
"That is not credible. It is based on how much oil the rocks are potentially capable of holding. We won't know how much there is until we actually drill. All we have so far are educated guesses," he said.
Mr Richards denies that the Government is privy to secret discoveries. "There are no vast reserves that we know about. But who knows, it may come good for our grandchildren," he said.
Is it in the interests of mankind to tap deep-sea reserves? We may have no choice. The world has consumed one trillion barrels of oil already. The second trillion is located but not yet tapped, and will take us to 2035 or so. The third trillion eludes us. Any suggestions?