Mining Ocean minerals: Who pays, who profits?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

How to dispose of those wastes is one of the many environmental questions being studied by the industry. Although many other ecologically sensitive questions have been raised --ocean floor -- government and industry studies have so far found that there would be few, if any, negative environmental impacts as a result of deep-sea mining.

Despite the tremendous capital costs, there are substantial benefits in ocean mining. For one, industry spokesmen say, the energy costs for mining the porous , easily crushed nodules are estimated to be about half the cost of the energy-intensive processes used to mine and refine ore dug from the land.

From a strategic standpoint, the benefits may be even higher -- although that assessment depends on whether you're a mineral-rich or mineral-poor country. Countries such as Canada, which has an abundant supply of nickel, or Chile, which has an economy that relies heavily on copper exports, are concerned that ocean mining may cause a glut of minerals -- and a drop in prices -- on the world market.

But for countries such as the US, which produces virtually no cobalt or manganese (potential reserves are considered to be too costly to mine), the nodules could mean an abundant supply of minerals that are needed for making the stainless steel used in silverware and offshore oil platforms (nickel); for making fiber optics and jet engines (cobalt); and in steel (manganese).

Such countries as the US, West Germany, or Japan count on often hostile or politically unstable countries like Zaire, South Africa, or the USSR, for their mineral supplies. And increasingly, these countries express anxiety about the possibility of an OPEC-like cartel being formed by the mineral-producing countries.

In theory, estimates Conrad Welling, senior vice-president of Ocean Minerals Company, one of the most active of the five mining consortia, the industry could begin dredging up nodules within 10 years. In fact, West Germany and the US have already passed legislation meant to serve as interim mining law while Law of the Sea is being negotiated. Similar legislation is reportedly being considered by France, Britain, and Belgium.

But in reality, Mr. Welling predicts, ocean mining may not come to pass for several years -- not until the mining mix-up at the Law of the Sea conference is resolved. Already, he says, his company is trimming plans for its next phase of development, from $250 million over the next five years to $25 million for the same period. And the other consortia, an industry insider says, are not expected to spend more than that --

Under the mining conditions of the present draft treaty, deep seabed mining would be placed under the authority of an international bureaucracy; strict production quotas would be set; and profit sharing and transfer-of-technology conditions would be outlined.

Third-world countries contend that these regulations are necessary to divide the bounty of the ocean's minerals equitably. Industry experts, however, have roundly denounced the treaty's conditions. They claim, among other things, that these afford no security of access or of contract to companies that need such guarantees to justify expenditures of more than $1 billion.

"The point is, we don't want to claim exclusive access to what is the common heritage of mankind," Mr. Welling says. "We'll be glad to rent it, pay a fee, whatever. But let's do it on a commercial, businesslike basis."

"Unless we get this settled in the next couple of years," he warns, "there'll be no ocean mining this century. . . . Ocean mining is coming -- there's no doubt about it. But it's a question of when."

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