Dividing the "Doughnut Hole" in the Gulf of Mexico: Oil and Environment in the U.S.-Mexico Maritime Boundary Treaty, 1978–2008

Thursday, January 7, 2010: 3:40 PM
Manchester Ballroom I (Hyatt)
Tyler Priest , University of Houston, Houston, TX
In 1978 the United States and Mexico signed a treaty establishing maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Mexico.  The treaty defined an outer boundary of 200 nautical miles, claimed by the United States for fisheries jurisdiction and by Mexico as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).   The Mexican parliament ratified the treaty in 1979, but the U.S. Senate postponed ratification, arguing that the treaty gave away prospective deepwater oil to Mexico.
    The 1978 draft treaty left two territorial “gaps,” eastern and western, in areas beyond 200 miles from each nation’s respective coastlines. UNCLOS prohibited nations from claiming natural resources in areas beyond the 200-mile EEZ unless scientific studies provided evidence that the area qualifies as an extension of the continental shelf under article 76 of UNCLOS.  In the late 1990s, U.S. oil firms discovered oil in progressively deeper water on the U.S. side of the Gulf approaching the “Western Gap,” which rekindled interest in the treaty.  In 2000, after prolonged negotiations and studies confirming the criteria in Article 76, the United States and Mexico signed and ratified a Delimitation Treaty dividing the Western Gap (giving the United States about 38 percent and Mexico 62 percent), setting off oil exploration and leasing in the newly acquired U.S. territory.  
    Based on original archival research and oral histories, this paper will use the case of the U.S.-Mexico Maritime Boundary Treaty to analyze the historical intersections between diplomacy, business, technology, and the marine environment.  It will examine this episode as an aspect of how human political/legal institutions have incorporated marine territory adjacent to littoral states since 1945, how marine environmental science enabled or constrained this, and how oil increasingly became an important factor in that process.
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