Operation North SeaAct relating to Exploration for and Exploitation of Submarine Natural Resources

Norway proclaims sovereignty over NCS

person by Trude Meland, Norwegian Petroleum Museum
Norway proclaimed its sovereignty over the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS) by a royal decree of 31 May 1963. This laid claim to the NCS "to such extent as the depth of the sea permits the exploitation of natural deposits, irrespective of any other territorial limits at sea, but not beyond the median line in relation to other states".
— Letter from Geological Survey of Norway
© Norsk Oljemuseum

The decree established that the Norwegian state had the right to submarine natural resources on the NCS, as defined by the Geneva convention on the law of the sea of 1958. According to the decree, only the Council of State could authorise exploration and production of resources on and under the seabed.

Legal regulations pursuant to the decree were not adopted until 1965. The Geneva convention gave coastal states exclusive jurisdiction over the continental shelf with regard to exploring and exploiting the seabed. This jurisdiction was initially restricted to waters less than 200 metres deep, but also extended as far out as the exploitation of natural resources was permitted by the depth of the sea.

The Norwegian government hesitated to sign the convention for some considerable time because of the Norwegian Trench, a deep glacially scoured trought which runs close to the coast of Norway from the Skagerrak in the south to roughly the 62nd parallel in the north. The water depth in the trench goes down to 700 metres. But the Geneva convention also enshrined the median line principle for determining the continental shelf boundaries between states, and the Norwegian government eventually based its position on this principle.

It took seven years from the UN conference on the law of the sea in Geneva until the Norwegian authorities ratified the convention. This long delay probably reflected a lack of interest by the government in the NCS, because it did not expect to find natural resources of value off the coast.

This assumption rested primarily on the response to a telegram dispatched by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Norwegian Geological Survey (NGU), which asked whether mineral raw materials might be found under the NCS. The response from the NGU stated in part: “The chances of finding coal, oil or sulphur on the continental shelf off the Norwegian coast can be discounted”.

The Norwegian government took the view that international law already gave Norway jurisdiction over the NCS, and that ratifying the law of the sea convention was therefore relatively unimportant. After the initial discoveries of petroleum in the North Sea basin were announced, however, and the first oil companies arrived in Oslo with a request to explore the NCS, work on a ratification was initiated.

Operation North SeaAct relating to Exploration for and Exploitation of Submarine Natural Resources
Published October 24, 2017   •   Updated October 19, 2020
© Norsk Oljemuseum
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