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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

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Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. WYDEN. Mr. President, today I am pleased to introduce, with my colleague Lisa Murkowski, the Ranking Member on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and at the request of the Delegate from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Island, CNMI, Gregorio ``Kilili'' Sablan, legislation to amend Public Law 93-435, the Territorial Submerged Lands Act. This legislation would convey to the CNMI the same rights to offshore waters and submerged lands that were conveyed to the territories of Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa nearly 40 years ago.

This bill is non-controversial. In 2005, it was first introduced by then-Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Pete Domenici. A companion measure was introduced in the House of Representatives by then-Congressman Jeff Flake. In the 111th Congress, this bill passed the House as H.R. 934 on a 416-0 vote, and it was reported by the Senate Committee. In the 112th Congress, it again passed the House unanimously, on a 297-0 vote, and a hearing was held in the Senate on its companion measure, S. 590. I sincerely hope that this will be the year this bill is signed into law and the people of the CNMI will begin to enjoy the economic benefits that will result from gaining ownership of the waters and submerged lands adjacent to their shores, just as those benefits are enjoyed by every other State and territory of the Nation.

The CNMI faces huge economic challenges that began with the phase-out of World Trade Organization garment quotas in 2005 and resulted in the departure of garment manufacturing. Gaining ownership of the waters and submerged lands adjacent to the 14 islands of the CNMI would help to stimulate the CNMI's struggling economy by allowing the use and management of these areas for near-shore infrastructure development, the extraction of minerals, energy development, aquaculture and other activities. Currently, under Federal ownership, there are no such activities in these areas because the Federal Government has no history of such near-shore jurisdiction and there is no Federal agency with responsibility for their management.

Congress granted the States ownership of the waters and submerged lands out to three miles under the Submerged Lands Act of 1953. In 1974, Congress granted ownership of these areas to the territories. However, the Covenant which established the political union between the U.S. and the CNMI in 1976 was ambiguous on this matter of seaward ownership. Eventually, in 2005, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the submerged lands and waters off the CNMI's coasts fell under Federal ownership. Importantly, the Court also recognized that Congress had the power to convey these waters and lands to the CNMI. That is what this legislation would do.

The CNMI is the only territory or State that does not have ownership of its adjacent waters and lands out to at least 39les. I urge my colleagues to support prompt passage of this bill to correct this disparity and to assist the CNMI in meeting its economic challenges. I'm not aware of any policy objections to this bill's enactment.

I refer those interested in additional information to Senate Report 111-197. Included in that report is a CBO estimate stating that enactment of H.R. 934, the bill on which the legislation being introduced today is based, would not affect direct spending or revenues.

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