This isn’t space law, but it feels like space law. Or, to put it more pedantically, this application to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from Lockheed Martin Corporation to extend its deep seabed mineral exploration licenses contains interesting parallels to the mining of celestial bodies. The mining would take place outside of anyone’s sovereign territory. As a review of Lockheed Martin’s application shows, it’s technically very difficult. Also, there’s a treaty that Lockheed is waiting on the United States to ratify, somewhat like some space miners are waiting for Congress set up a regulatory structure for them before they will start mining. There is an International Seabed Authority, much as some, including the signatories of the Moon Treaty, would have there be an international authority for extraterrestrial activity. Unlike for space miners, Congress did pass a law, the 1980 Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act, to regulate and administer seabed mining.
NOAA’s Federal Register notice links to the application itself. In its application, Lockheed Martin states that it:
requests an extension of the seabed exploration licenses for the two Lockheed Martin claims, USA-1 and USA-4. NOAA renewed these licenses in 2012 enabling us to continue our investigation into the viability of exploration and development of the USA-1 and USA-4 licensed areas. Since the most recent 5 year license extension was granted, the Corporation has made significant progress against Phase I of its Exploration Plan.1 However, during the same period, progress on the Exploration Plan has been delayed due to the prolonged, severely depressed state of the metals markets and continued delay in resolving the security of tenure issues given the lack of ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
It would be very interesting to know why Lockheed sees the lack of ratification of the UN Convention as an impediment to going forward, but I found no additional detail or explanation in the Lockheed application for this tantalizing tidbit.
A quick internet search unearthed this comprehensive review of the 1982 UNCLOS. Writing in 2012, Steven Groves of the Heritage Foundation explains how U.S. companies can engage in seabed mining without joining UNCLOS. For one thing, the United States has entered into a series of agreements with other nations to, among other things, resolve conflicting claims and to notify each other when approving applications for exploration. A number of nations
have made a commitment to the United States that they will not interfere with or infringe on the claims by the United States or its companies in the CCZ. None of the nations has denounced or withdrawn from the agreements or has otherwise indicated that it does not respect its international commitments to recognize U.S. claims in the CCZ.
As a legal matter the article notes, the countries who are part of UNCLOS “cannot prevent the United States or any other nation from mining the seabed any more than they can prevent the U.S. from exercising the freedom of navigation and overflight, the freedom of fishing, or any other high seas freedom.”
Simply because most nations have ratified UNCLOS does not mean that those nations or any international organization, such as the Authority, may deny a right to the United States that it enjoys under international law. One set of nations cannot annul the rights of another set of nations by drafting a treaty that the second set of nations chooses not to join.
(From the perspective of Article II of the Outer Space Treaty, which bars national appropriation of celestial bodies, it is interesting to note that no nations claim sovereignty over the deep seabed yet those nations may recognize claims.)
Groves’ article sums up the state of affairs for security of tenure:
In sum, acting under the authority of DSHMRA, customary international law, and multilateral agreements with foreign countries and companies, the United States has successfully claimed and maintained security of tenure over vast tracts of the deep seabed. The U.S. has done so as an independent sovereign nation exercising its inherent rights.
Groves’ discussion highlights a number of areas of concern for U.S. companies, including environmental measures, inspections, data sharing, and, most significantly for a company with fiduciary obligations to its shareholders:
Under an UNCLOS regime, a U.S. company would have limited control over the area licensed to it for exploration. Once a U.S. company identifies an area of the seabed that it wants to explore, it must divide the area into two halves of equal estimated commercial value and share its data on the area with the Authority. Thereafter, the Council reserves one half of the area for exploration by developing countries or the Enterprise, the Authority’s mining arm. The remaining half would be licensed to the U.S. company for exploration. The size of the U.S. company’s half is effectively limited to only 75,000 square kilometers. (By comparison, the USA-1 exploration area is almost 169,000 square kilometers. Finally, a U.S. company would not have exclusive access to its half because the Authority has the right to enter into contracts with third parties to explore and mine the U.S. half for resources other than polymetallic nodules.
According to NOAA’s Federal Register notice, it seeks comments from the public by May 22, 2017, on Lockheed Martin’s request for an extension. It will be interesting to follow this docket and see if anyone objects to the extension. Might competitors file? Might environmental groups? Might those who think this a fine regulatory model for outer space be deterred by the thought that others get to comment on and thus delay their business plans?
Bonus points to anyone able to identify the source of this post’s title.