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Mining Ocean minerals: Who pays, who profits?

By Sara TerryStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 1981

La Jolla, Calif.

It looks like a charred baked potato. Nothing much to get worked up over, really. Just an odd little rock. But don't be fooled. This little rock, and trillions more like it, are considered to be so valuable that they've been deemed part of your "common heritage." They are so controversial they have set a world conference on its ear.

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The hoopla is over manganese nodules, porous lumps from the sea that contain some of the most vital minerals in the world -- nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese. Nestled on the ocean floor, at depths of up to 18,000 feet, these mineral-rich nodules have aggregated slowly over millions of years, growing at an average rate of one millimeter every 100,000 years.

It's been estimated that the ocean harbors as many as a trillion tons of manganese nodules, enough to supply the world demand for the minerals mentioned for 100 years or more.

But before the first ounce of cobalt from the sea ever makes its way into the production of such strategically important products as jet aircraft engines, there are a few not-so-small items that need to be cleared up:

Who will mine these nodules and who will pocket the profits?

That's been the question of the day for many years now at the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea -- a debate further intensified by the Reagan administration's March 5 decision to review an international Law of the Sea treaty whose clauses on mining are one of its controversial aspects.

Because the nodules are found beneath the high seas -- far from the shores and legal jurisdiction of any country -- they have been designated, along with the oceans at large, as part of "the common heritage of mankind," a term coined by the United Nations in 1970.

As such, the reasoning goes, all peoples, in underdeveloped and developed countries alike, should benefit from the exploitation of the nodules. But just how those benefits should be shared is the subject of considerable debate, as will be discussed at length in the third article of this series.

"Each nation has a very different attitude," explains Gustave Arrhenius, a marine geochemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who is a nodule expert. "The U.S. is interested largely for strategic reasons, as is Germany. So are the Japanese, who rely entirely upon imports for their mineral supply."

"It's a strategic-political question, rather than a question of supply," he continues. "There's actually enough of these minerals in the world to last for hundreds and hundreds of years . . . but they are distributed [geographically] in ways that create political strain."

Experts say that in terms of technology the nodules can be mined -- a difficult engineering feat that has been likened to trying to suck peas up the length of a hose hanging down from the top of the Empire State Building in a high wind.

At one point or another during the past 17 years, five international consortia -- involving companies from the United States, Britain, France, West Germany, Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada -- have invested several million dollars in exploratory seabed mining and in technology development.

Although more technological research remains to be done, the basic seabed mining concept is akin to running a super vacuum cleaner along the ocean floor. Under one such patented system, a huge supertanker-size ship would be stationed on the ocean surface, attached by a pipe to a 100-ton, remote-controlled machine that would suck up the nodules.

The costs of such an operation are immense -- an estimated $1 billion to get a system working and another $300 million to build a processing plant. To make a profit, engineers say, some 5,000 to 10,000 tons of nodules would have to be retrieved each day -- and 97 percent of that tonnage would be discarded as "tailings," or waste.