The Future of Space Could Be LOST
Why should space advocates and entrepreneurs care about a UN treaty establishing rules for the world's oceans? Because that convention—the Law of the Sea Treaty—places road blocks in the way of future resource development, both on the open seas and eventually out in space.
The U.S. already complies with most of the provisions the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST). However, President Reagan rejected LOST in 1982 because of its rules for developing the resources of the unclaimed ocean and the seabeds beneath it. Instead of treating those areas as no-man's-land or open seas, the UN declares them to be “the common heritage of mankind.” In practice, this lofty-sounding phrase means that the unclaimed parts of the ocean are community property, owned by nobody but subject to a new UN bureaucracy called the International Seabed Authority (ISA).
The ISA has the authority to decide who explores for and mines the resources of the deep seabed. Any individual company wishing to develop the seabed must pay the UN a $250,000 application fee; explore two sites, giving one to the UN; and pay a portion of earnings from the seabed to ISA for its own expenses and to compensate other nations that are hurt by price shocks from developing these new resources. ISA’s governing board consists primarily of developing nations historically hostile to U.S. interests. The U.S. can form a coalition of nations to block an ISA action, but has no formal veto. And lastly, ISA expects the companies developing the deep seabed to sell the UN or developing nations the proprietary technologies used for the work. This effectively makes the UN or developing nations competitors on territory the company explored. (The treaty no longer “requires” this technology transfer, but the end result is still the same.)
This international regime creates many disincentives to developing the seabed, and offers few good choices for American businesses. They either subject their future profits and proprietary technologies to the UN or forego the opportunity altogether. Now fast-forward 10 or 20 years, and imagine these same regulations applied to the resources of space--ice on the Moon or metals in asteroids; would American businesses willingly submit to this regime when the cost of space efforts is already prohibitively expensive? That won’t happen. And yet, by endorsing LOST, President Bush and the U.S. Senate are opening the space economy to just such a plan.
In 1979, the Senate rejected the Moon Treaty because a similar UN-controlled bureaucracy would have had control over all resources developed in space. Indeed, the discredited Moon Treaty uses the very same language that is used by the Law of the Sea Treaty, as the Moon Treaty declares that space is “the common heritage of mankind.” Even the Soviet Union—the preeminent anti-American power of the day—did not sign the Moon Treaty, which is a descendant of LOST. If we accept LOST, we will face even greater pressure to accept its space-based offspring.
Private enterprise is crucial for the development of a permanent civilization on dangerous frontiers. Government might pave the way, but if people are to stay and make these undeveloped areas a long-term concern, they must have commerce, including the right to develop and profit from local resources. If the private sector does not develop the deep seabeds or the resources of the solar system, it is unlikely that governments will do so. The U.S. already follows and benefits from the bulk of LOST; we need not tie our hands on future development by signing it and accepting its seabed provisions. If the U.S. signs this convention, the future of the space economy will truly be LOST.