Kenya seeks UN help to secure oil, gas riches beneath its sea bed

Attorney- General (AG) Githu Muigai. PHOTO | FILE
Attorney General (AG) Githu Muigai. PHOTO | FILE 

The government is seeking the United Nations’ (UN) authority and expertise to map out Kenya’s territorial waters to enable the country exploit huge oil, natural gas and mineral reserves believed to be underneath the Indian Ocean sea bed.

Attorney-General Githu Muigai on Monday told the New York-based United Nation’s Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) — the body mandated to determine countries’ maritime boundaries — to fast track the demarcation of the sea borders to pave the way for Kenya’s search for riches in her territorial waters.

“We want the commission to map out Kenya’s outer limit of its continental shelf (the line between Kenyan waters and international waters) to enable Kenya to start exploration for oil gas and rare minerals within its sea,” Prof Muigai told the Business Daily in interview from New York where he made Kenya’s case before the UN Commission. The commission helps countries define their sea boundaries.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also known as the Law of the Sea Convention, a coastal state like Kenya has sovereign rights to explore and exploit, conserve and manage the natural resources in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Such a zone extends to a maximum of 370 kilometres (200 nautical miles) from the edge of the territorial sea.

However, the UN Convention provides that countries with opposite or adjacent coasts must de-limit their zones by applying international law to avoid conflict with other nations.

The AG said Kenya wants a speedy delineation of what is technically referred to as outer continental shelf limit as provided by the Law of the Sea Convention.

The continental shelf of countries with sea borders is the natural extension of its land territory in to the sea.

Somalia row

Against the back drop of the push, Kenya is separately battling a court case before the UN’s top court over a maritime border dispute between it and Somalia.

The AG said Kenya would be arguing its case against Somalia’s claim next month in The Hague.

Somalia has taken Kenya before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) seeking to reclaim an area of the Indian Ocean bordering Kenya’s territorial waters.

The area with potential reserves of oil and gas stretches more than 100,000 square kilometres.

Somalia, which lies to the north of Kenya, wants the maritime border to run along the line of the land border, to the southeast.

Kenya, however, wants the sea border to go in a straight line east, giving it more sea territory.

“The matter will come up in September for Kenya to argue anpleriminary point, that is that the court has no jurisdiction over the matter as Kenya and Somalia in 2008 agreed on a system of dispute settlement, namely diplomatic negotiations,” said the AG.

Somalia lodged the case with the ICJ in August 2014.

It has requested the court “to determine, on the basis of international law, the complete course of the single maritime boundary dividing all the maritime areas appertaining to Somalia and to Kenya in the Indian Ocean, including the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.”

Kenya has in the past raised preliminary objections to the jurisdiction of the court and the admissibility of the application.

Somalia’s application to the court says the two countries “disagree about the location of the maritime boundary in the area where their maritime entitlements overlap” and says diplomatic efforts have failed to broker an agreement.

The Hague-based UN court was set up in 1945 to rule on disputes between member-states of the United Nations.
Somalia’s claim threatens to take away about 64,000 square kilometres from Kenya’s territorial waters, including part of the Lamu oil exploration basin.

Kenya has already licensed several companies to prospect for oil in the disputed patch of the ocean as part of its ambitious plan to search for oil and gas both on- and off-shore.

Kenya has mapped out 44 oil and gas exploration blocks, licensed to 23 international oil companies and one to the National Oil Corporation of Kenya.

They include Total, Eni, Anadarko, BG Group, Apache Corporation, Origin Energy and Pancontinental of Australia, which discovered vast gas reserves in Block L8 in the Lamu Basin in September 2012 and oil in June in the same basin.

The UN law of the sea asks states with shared coastlines to agree on the extent of three different areas — their territorial seas, exclusive economic zones and continental shelves.

Launched in 1982 and signed by 130 countries by 1994, UNCLOS seeks to establish the sea limits and sovereignty of states on the use of the sea and allows coastal countries to seek an extension of their exclusive economic zones beyond the 200 nautical-mile limit.

In 2008 Kenya sought to sign a memorandum of understanding on the common maritime boundary with Somalia ahead of a May 2009 deadline set by the UNCLCS, which required countries to submit agreements with neighbouring states on the limits and orientations of their maritime boundaries.

But the deal was later rejected by the Somali parliament.

Since Somalia had rejected the MoU with Kenya, the UN refused to endorse it, terming it “non-actionable” on March 12, 2010.

After declining Kenya’s overtures, the Somali government filed a case in the International Court of Justice in February.

Overlapping continental shelves around the globe have been a cause of rising political temperatures and military deployments, such as the disputed Southern China Sea.