WASHINGTON A U.S. Senate committee voted on Wednesday in favor of ratifying an international treaty on ocean shipping and deep-sea mining amid debate over its impact on naval operations and industry.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 17-4 to back the accord, sending it to the full Senate for action where it would need a two-thirds vote to win final approval.
President George W. Bush wants the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, saying it would allow U.S. armed forces to move freely on the oceans.
More than 150 nations have already joined the 25-year-old pact, but it has languished in the Senate for many years.
Some Republicans and other critics have argued it would hurt U.S security by over-emphasizing peaceful use of the oceans, citing limits it would impose on collecting intelligence and submarine operations in territorial waters.
Some have also criticized provisions that they say would restrict U.S. sovereignty, impose new environmental obligations and thwart commercial development of the deep seabed.
Critics add the accord would set global rules discouraging deep-sea mining of minerals such as cobalt and manganese.
But supporters say the treaty ensures the U.S. military will not need a "permission slip" in the future to pass through the territorial waters of other nations, while guaranteeing the freedom of navigation for the world's shipping industry.
Joining the treaty also gives the United States a seat at the table to resolve disputes, such as those that could arise over new sea lanes opening up in the Arctic, supporters say.
The treaty guarantees U.S. access to oil, natural gas and other natural resources extending 200 miles out from the U.S. shoreline -- an area covering nearly 300,000 square miles.
"We should become a party to the convention," committee Chairman Joseph Biden, a Delaware senator and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said at a committee meeting where the vote was held.
"The oil and gas industry is unanimous in its support of the convention ... I'm unaware of any ocean industry that has expressed opposition to this treaty," Biden said.
Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, one of four senators voting in opposition, said he had concerns about dispute resolutions and international seabed authority.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer and Kevin Drawbaugh)