Washington — Three miles deep, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the seabed is covered with gray-black metal nodules the size of tennis balls. Are these mineral-rich spheres there for the taking? Or do they belong, instead, to all the peoples of the world?
Six international consortia currently are charting the nodule deposits and developing the costly equipment and techniques needed to vacuum them up. The ore, according to one US mining company, "could represent a mineral source of immense proportions . . . the seeds of a whole new industry in a decade or two." But less-developed nations contend the minerals belong to all mankind and should be price-regulated and shared, along with the technology to harvest them.
Worried that the second view could be present when the "Law of the Sea" treaty is offered for world approval, Congress is moving to pass a bill allowing US companies to go ahead with exploration -- and eventually mining -- outside of treaty regulations that might hamper their operations. The House approved the bill June 9; approval in the Senate, where the Law of the Sea treaty may be in for criticism, is likely this summer.
The nodules themselves have long been scientific curiosities. Composed of cobalt, copper, manganese, and nickel -- although the minerals and proportions vary from location to location -- the nodules were discovered in 1872 by the British research vessel HMS Challenger. They were only museum pieces until undersea cameras revealed that they carpet the deep basins of the ocean in vast numbers. One estimate puts their total weight at 1.5 trillion tons.
Scientists have determined that the nodules grow by precipitation of minerals out of sea water. These minerals form around of nucleus, such as a shark's tooth or a piece of whale bone, and grow in concentric rings around the core. A three-to four-inch diameter nodule is the product of 40 million to 50 million years of growth.
The minerals are economically valuable. The United States in 1976 imported $ 1.8 billion worth of copper, manganese, nickel, and cobalt. J. K. Amsbaugh, vice-president of the Sun Company, which is a member of the Ocean Mining Association consortium (OMA) along with US Steel and Union Miniere of Belgium, predicts that by the end of the century the US could be self-sufficient in these four metals. But Mr. Amsbaugh says before lending institutions will advance the capital needed to move seabed mining into the production stage, assurances must be given that the investment will not be lost by expropriation or future treaties.
A key point in the House bill, inserted in deference to third-world concerns, postpones commercial mining of the nodules by US firms until 1988. Mr. Amsbaugh says this amount of time will be needed anyway to acquire venture capital and technical expertise before launching into full-scale production.
Under the current draft of the Law of the Sea treaty, which may be completed this summer and put forward for signing next year, "full control" over the seabed would be in the hands of a new international political regime, possibly sponsored by the United Nations. Critics fear this body would be dominated by developing nations -- the same qualms some have about the "moon treaty" proposal. The mining consortia object to treaty provisions which, they say, would have these effects:
* Mining companies would have to prospect and map two nodule sites. The international regime would be able to choose one of these for itself and open it to be mined in competition by a company under its jurisdiction.
* Technology to mine the nodules would have to be transferred to other controls by the regime would regulate the world price of the minerals.
* A 3.5 percent share of the profits would go into a fund for "peoples who have not yet achieved independence," Mr. Amsbaugh says. This means the Palestine Liberation Organization or the Irish Republican Army could benefit.
But a US expert on the Law of the Sea says the first three industry objections must be tempered with knowledge that: The international regime would need to acquire nodule sites to create a "bank" for future mineral recovery; commercial terms under UN rules; and control of production by the regime would extend only 20 years from date the treaty takes effect.