Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

Seabed Hard Minerals

Prepared by James E. Mielke

Specialist in Marine and Earth Sciences
Science Policy Research Division

Issue Definition
Background and Analysis
Status of the Issue
Continuing Concerns
Sources and References for Further Information

Issue Definition

After many years of negotiations for a comprehensive Law of the Sea (LOS) Treaty, the United States decided not to sign the LOS Convention because of provisions that were "inimical" to the interests of the United States with regard to mining the seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. With the end of the Cold War era and shifting interest toward free enterprise in eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and much of the developing world, the United States reviewed its position regarding the LOS Convention. Except the seabed mining provisions, the United States supports, and has independently adopted, most of the provisions of the Convention. Recently, progress was made in negotiations to accommodate seabed mining interests and on July 29, 1994 the Clinton Administration signed the Treaty. Diplomatic progress notwithstanding, economic projections of returns from seabed mining have dwindled since the 1970s and decisions regarding commercial development activities have been indefinitely postponed.

Background and Analysis

With passage of the Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act (DSHMRA) of 1980 (P.L. 96-283), Congress established the framework for what was then thought to be an interim domestic regime to regulate the activities of U.S. nationals and firms who wished to engage in deep seabed nodule mining activities in international waters, pending the entry into force for the United States of the Law of the Sea (LOS) Convention. Subsequently, in 1982, the President announced that the United States would not sign the LOS Convention basing U.S. objections largely upon the seabed mining provisions that it contained. Consequently, four seabed mining consortia involving U.S. firms applied to NOAA, the lead agency under DSHMRA, for exploration licenses. While the licenses have been granted, and sustained through required activities and expenditures, because of less favorable economic projections, the consortia have not applied for commercial recovery permits. In May 1993, because of a change in business strategy and concerns over the future legal regime for commercial operations, one consortia surrendered its license to NOAA. subsequently, one of the other consortia applied for a license for that area. 35

By not being a signatory to the LOS Convention, the United States was precluded from a participatory role in the Preparatory Commission whose purpose was to draft rules of procedures to implement the seabed mining regime established by the Convention. Some argued that U.S. interests would have been better served by participation in the Preparatory Commission. Others argued that the seabed mining provisions of the LOS Convention were basically inimical to the interests of the United States and that U.S. interests were better served by legislation such as DSHMRA and agreements such as the Provisional Understanding on Deep Seabed Matters, which the United States has with seven other nations who have developed seabed mining technology.

In 1990 the UN Secretary-General began a series of informal consultations devoted to resolving the objections of the United States and other industrialized nations to the seabed mining provisions of the LOS contained in Part XI. Recognizing that significant progress was being made in these consultations, an interagency review concluded that overall U.S. interests in the Convention would be best served by taking a more active role in the consultations. Consequently, on April 27, 1993, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations announced that the United States would participate in the succeeding rounds of consultations. This effort resulted in the Agreement Relating to the Implementation of Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This Agreement was adopted on July 28, 1994. The Agreement and the Convention with their respective Annexes are to be taken together as a single legally binding instrument and, in the event of inconsistency between them, the Agreement is to prevail. The Clinton Administration signed the l994Agreement modifying Part XI of the LOS Convention and on October 6, 1994 submitted it along with the Convention to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification. On November 16, 1994 the LOS Convention entered into force without accession by the United States. Implementing legislation would likely be required to make conforming changes in U.S. law should the United States become a party to the Law of the Sea Convention and 1994 Agreement.

Continuing Concerns

These concerns and questions are provided to stimulate further discussion of the issues noted above.

  1. Should the United States ratify the Law of the Sea Convention as amended or still seek to move the international community further toward provisions for deep seabed mining more favorable to industrialized nations such as the United States?
  2. Is it in the national interest, as an alternative source of copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and other metals, to provide some form of support or incentives for a domestic seabed mining industry?

Sources and References for Further Information

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. Marine Minerals: Exploring Our New Ocean Frontier. OTA-O-342. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., July 1987.347 p.

U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Hard Minerals in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone: Resource Assessments and Expectations, Part I -- Sand and Gravel, Placers, and Phosphorite. CR5 Report for Congress 87-885 SPR. [by James E. Mielke.] Washington, DC: Nov. 6, 1987. 50 p.

Hard Minerals in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone: Resource Assessments and Expectations, Part II-- Ferromanganese Nodules, Cobalt-Manganese Crusts, and Polymetallic Sulfide Deposits. CRS Report for Congress 87-975 SPR. [by James E. Mielke.] Washington, DC: Dec.15, 1987. 52 p.

--------- . Deep Seabed Mining: U.S. Interests and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. CRS Report for Congress 95-471 SPR. [by James E. Mielke.] Washington, DC: April 7, 1995. 6 p.


35 Statement of Dr. David Evans, Senior Scientist, National Ocean Service, NOAA, before the Subcommittee on Oceanography, Gulf of Mexico and the OCS, Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, U.S. House of Representatives, April 26, 1994.

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