There are moves to mine resources on the Moon and the deep seabed, two distinct but related global ‘commons’. The UK must push for environmentally sound regulations ensuring the responsible management of these vulnerable areas.
A number of news outlets have reported the possibility of mining projects on the Moon and in the deep seabed. These areas are linked, despite their immense geographical differences. Both are global ‘commons’ – domains not under the jurisdiction of individual states, but international agreements, and to which all nations have access – with near limitless economic potential.
President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order on 6 April 2020 asserting the right of the US and its firms to extract resources from the lunar surface and other celestial bodies. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should work with the private sector, it says, spurring innovation toward its long-term goal: a human presence on Mars. NASA has since outlined how a lunar presence might work in its Artemis Accords.
Is this allowed? States are regulated in outer space by a suite of international treaties, the most important of which is known as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (or OST). This mandates that the exploration of outer space should be peaceful, and not subject to claims of sovereignty (international law partly inspired by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty).
Resource extraction is murkier legal territory, with no mention in the OST. Attempts were made to cover this with the 1979 ‘Moon Agreement’, which labelled resources the “common heritage of all mankind”. Only 18 states ever signed, however, rendering it largely ineffective.
In 2015 the US passed legislation recognising property in outer-space resources, with states such as Luxembourg following suit. The UK should support creating a clear rules-based system that regulates firms’ conduct in outer space to reflect the variety of policy options, both economic and environmental. Otherwise unilateralism risks triumph over multilateral governance.
The deep seabed
As in outer space, the seabed is an evolving area of international governance. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is the UN body designated to regulate resource extraction on the seabed in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Licences granted so far extend only to exploration in 30 regions, but the Authority is working towards a Mining Code that would allow exploitation. The intention was to agree to the Code in July 2020, although the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed this.
Still, the underlying desire to mine the deep seabed will not diminish. It holds enormous quantities of valuable minerals used in smartphones and by renewable-energy technologies. The World Bank estimates that, to keep global temperature rises this century to “well below” 2°C (the central aim of the 2015 Paris Agreement), demand for certain metals used in batteries will increase more than ten times by 2050. Indeed, prices for palladium, used in catalytic convertors, have risen by a third since the millennium. Platinum, used in electric-vehicle fuel cells, has more than doubled. Seafloor mining technology has also advanced markedly over recent years, according to ISA’s current Secretary-General.
What about the environment? A British Government-commissioned capability statement warned in 2017 of “the potential extinction of unique species which form the first rung of the food chain”. The prospect of mining has resulted in the classification of the scaly-foot snail – Chrysomallon squamiferum – as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. More worrying, we simply have no idea what life would be destroyed. There are almost 26,000 species listed in the deep sea (below 500 metres depth), but research has modelled there could be over 10 million.
Defending multilateralism in the commons
The British government has sponsored two licences for polymetallic nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, an area of 4.5m square kilometres between Hawaii and Mexico. On exploitation, its position is to take the precautionary principle, specifying it will not sponsor “any exploitation licences for deep-sea mining projects until there is sufficient scientific evidence about the potential impact on deep-sea ecosystems” with “strong” ISA standards in place.
This is to be commended, but should go further. Regulations need to establish a baseline for biodiversity, from which subsequent divergence can be monitored. There should also be a clear roadmap towards ever-greater environmental protections as the industry matures.
Whether at the abyssal depths of our planet’s oceans or far beyond our atmosphere, rules on resource-extraction should be established on a multilateral basis. Responsibility demands that these prioritise environmental protection, based on the precautionary principle.
Max Daniels is a Fellow at the Polar Research & Policy Initiative, has worked in the House of Commons, and studied for an MA in Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College London.