Why World's Mineral Wealth Is LoST at Sea

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Summer news stories sometimes take on a life of their own. Case in point: The ripped-from-science-lab flash that Japanese researchers had found "100 billion tons" of Rare Earth Elements buried just a meter or two below the Pacific seabed - with the discovery heralding an end to China's stranglehold on these obscure but critical metals.

Follow-on reporting produced an equal number of stories citing the technical difficulties in pulling metals from sea-muck - not inconsiderable, when the project in question is situated 2 to 3 1/2 miles below the open ocean surface, and 2,000 to 5,000 kilometers from the nearest continental land mass. By comparison, the infamous Deepwater Horizon rig operated at a seabed depth of a little less than one mile, just 41 miles off the Gulf Coast.

Pity the poor Japanese researchers: A week after their discovery, pulling Rare Earths from the Pacific deep appeared to be more challenging than mining them on the Moon.

Yet the technical challenge is bean-bag compared to the bureaucratic gauntlet of obtaining permission to drill in the world's open oceans. That power rests with the most powerful organization you've never heard of: The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which - under the United Nations' Law of the Sea provisions - oversees exploration rights in the world's open oceans, areas that constitute approximately 50 percent of the Earth's surface.

As it happens, the deep-sea Rare Earths discovery dovetails with the 17th annual plenary session of the ISA, held at its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica. (Acronyms matter: UN bureaucrats go by the clunky UNCLOS - United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea - while opponents of the treaty prefer LoST, after Law of the Sea Treaty.)

In typical UN fashion, the ISA is busy divvying up future revenue, working up complex plans to equalize royalties due the world's landlocked deep-sea Have-Nots - there are 44 countries with no access to sea coast - as well as sea-bordering countries, whether they invest in mining or not. ISA bureaucrats also have their pencils sharpened for environmental mishaps, warning prospective deep-sea miners that they'll be held to the "precautionary principle."

In other words, if an action has a suspected risk of causing harm to people or the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof then falls on the actor to demonstrate that the proposed action is not harmful. For maiden miners of the deep, who drill where no man or woman has ever drilled before, there can be no scientific consensus on unforeseen results. The message to would-be miners is clear: Drill or dredge at your own ex post facto risk.

All of which raises the question: Is Law of the Sea Treaty, as critics contend, a nefarious global socialist experiment conferring on the UN the power to control and redistribute a vast swath of the world's resource wealth, or an impenetrable bureaucratic shield to ensure no one ever extracts so much as an ounce of kilogram of that wealth? Thus far, it's been the latter: In its 17 years of existence, the International Seabed Authority has disbursed exactly zero dollars, euros, rubles or renminbi in mining royalties. Having succeeded in privatizing the risk while socializing the reward, the world is still waiting for its first deep-sea mine.

Thus far, the leading private-sector deep-sea metals miner has set its sights on a project off the coast of Papua New Guinea, but the claim sits within that nation's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) - a boundary that extends 200 nautical miles off each nation's coastline - not in international waters. As a result, approval for mining resides with the government of Papua New Guinea, not the UN's lords of the sea in Jamaica.

Plus, the project calls for drilling at a seabed depth of around one mile, not double or triple that depth as in the case of the Pacific's Rare Earths. Even so, the going will be slow: As one indicator of viability, in the weeks prior to the Rare Earths announcement, the company pulled the plug on a private stock placement, citing "weak financial market conditions."

Turning back to the story that sparked the metals sea quest, in the case of bringing a trove of Rare Earths up from the undersea muck, it's worth noting that a deep-sea mining rig thousands of kilometers from land would need its own power source. Wind power or solar would do nicely; ironically, either one would require Rare Earths to function. So either we ask China for the raw materials supply to diversify our raw materials supply - or we'd best get busy developing new resources on dry land, or at most, compared to open ocean depths, in the global kiddie pool that is each nation's EEZ.

Of course science marches on, and our knowledge on how to economically extract resources while minimizing environmental impact will increase, as it has without pause for the past half-century and more. So when the technical folks work out the deep-sea details, UN authorities in Kingston, Jamaica will be ready and waiting. Until we navigate that process, an unknown portion of our planet's mineral wealth is destined to remain LoST at sea.

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