Science Academy Urges US to Tap Sea's Mineral Wealth

IN 1967, the National Council on Marine Resources and Engineering Development proclaimed that major United States mining companies were only ``awaiting the identification of promising areas'' to start mining the mineral wealth of the sea. They're still waiting, as the National Academy of Sciences notes in a new report that urges the US to face up to the challenge of its offshore exclusive economic zone. It's a vast, probably mineral-rich, frontier that the country really needs to assess and use, the academy says.

This zone is an area extending 200 nautical miles (230 statute miles) offshore. It covers 3.9 billion acres, or 1.7 times the 2.5 billion acres of US land including trust territories. ``By any measure, it is huge,'' the report observes. It adds, ``It is also largely unexplored, poorly understood, and contains many diverse and fragile environments.''

The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment pointed out two years ago that this ignorance is one of the main reasons there's been so little interest in developing ocean wealth beyond fishing and pumping oil and gas. It pointed up the need for systematic exploration to find out just what wealth this zone contains and where it's located. Now the academy is reinforcing this message.

Enthusiasts have hyped offshore mining for a quarter century. Prospects include manganese, nickel, cobalt, copper, and even gold. Some of these minerals, such as manganese or cobalt, are laid down by sea-water chemistry in potato-sized nodules or as crusts on the sea floor. Others occur as placer deposits - that is, mixes of sand, gravel, and minerals. Phosphate deposits promise rich supplies of fertilizer. And there are oil and gas, which already provide 12 percent of the crude oil and 25 percent of the natural gas produced domestically.

Faced with costly exploration, the need for new technologies to work at sea, an unclear legal framework, and plentiful deposits remaining on land, commercial miners have had little interest in such dreams. The academy's Committee on Seabed Utilization in the Exclusive Economic Zone has reviewed this history. Decades of disinterest not withstanding, it concludes that the US can't afford to ignore the offshore zone any longer. It foresees the need for offshore resources to grow significantly over the next 10 to 20 years. That means action must be taken now to find out what's really there.

The report cites seabed uses besides the long prophesied mining. They include using some of the area as ``highway'' for communication cables. This use is likely to grow dramatically as fiber optical cables take over a larger share of the traffic. Waste disposal and nature reserves will also make new demands on the offshore area. Overarching all prospective uses is the need to protect this little known environment as much as possible.

Waste disposal is a case in point. The report notes that ``marine disposal is less expensive and less environmentally damaging than land alternatives.'' This, it adds, ``leads many experts to believe that marine disposal of dredged material and sewage sludge is likely to increase in the next 10 to 20 years, despite present public disapproval.''

The committee envisions ``innovative engineering approaches'' that would make such disposal environmentally safe. It suggests putting wastes in pits or trenches that are then capped with clean sediment to seal them off. But however this or any other seabed development is done, it should not be allowed in areas of special ecological interest and fragility. Therefore, the report urges that these areas be identified and reserved before serious exploitation gets under way.

In short, the academy committee is calling for an unprecedented national effort to understand the offshore zone. Whether or not this happens depends on how seriously the administration takes the academy findings. With White House leadership the academy believes the coordinated effort it seeks could get started. Without such leadership, the report, like its predecessors, will likely gather dust.

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