Australia has extended control of its continental shelf by nearly 1 million square miles (2.6 million square kilometers) under an agreement with the United Nations, Martin Ferguson, the country's resources minister, announced Monday.
The expansion east, west, and south increases Australia's territory by an area roughly five times the size of France and 20 times the size of the United Kingdom. Australia's overland area is about 3 million square miles (7.8 million square kilometers).
The agreement gives the country the right to the resources of the seabed. It does not give Australia control over shipping or whaling.
Ferguson expressed hope that the area would yield oil and gas reserves that could help ensure a secure energy supply for Australia and the Asian countries that depend on it.
"The truth of the matter is that [the areas] have been hardly explored," he said. "This is potentially a bonanza. We have got unknown capacity up there."
The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf made the ruling after Australia sought clarification on the extent of control it had over its seabed.
Richard Ellis, director of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, said the announcement was very exciting for the oil and gas industry.
"A larger continental shelf means a larger canvas upon which we can paint our resource and energy future," Ellis said.
Mark Allcock, a scientist with Geoscience Australia, also welcomed the arrangement as a way to allow Australia to declare biologically sensitive regions as protected marine areas.
"Beyond exploiting marine resources, it gives us the right to protect the environment," he said.
While the Australia ruling may be of limited controversy, that's not true for claims on the continental shelf in the Northern Hemisphere.
Russia, Canada, the U.S., and Denmark are currently embroiled in a dispute over how far their territorial waters extend—a bid to lay claim to Arctic seas speculated to contain vast reserves of oil and other natural resources.
Russia, in particular, has said it should have ownership of the North Pole based on the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea ridge extending north from Siberia.
The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf rules on claims for extended territorial waters under a 1982 treaty. But the agreement has not yet been ratified by the United States, further complicating the situation.