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

Marine Mining within the U.S. EEZ

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

From gravel to gold, hard minerals on the ocean floor are attracting commercial interest. For the United States, the marine minerals with potential for development from the EEZ include placer deposits of heavy minerals (e.g., gold, platinum, chromite, and titanium minerals), sand and gravel, and phosphorite deposits. Gold has been recovered off Nome, Alaska, and sand and gravel have been dredged from the entrance to New York Harbor as a needed source of construction aggregate for the New York market. In addition, prototype technology has been developed to recover ferromanganese nodules containing cobalt, copper, and nickel, and other metals from the deep ocean floor, although economic feasibility has not been demonstrated and the deposits of greatest commercial interest are beyond the EEZ.

Background and Analysis

By proclamation of the President on March 10, 1983, the United States claimed sovereign rights and jurisdiction within an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles seaward from the coast of the United States and U.S. territories. In joining the majority of coastal nations in declaring a 200-mile EEZ, the United States is left with the question of establishing a minerals management regime for the area. The Department of the Interior (DOI) has asserted that the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Lands Act is a suitable mechanism. Legislation was introduced in previous Congresses that would establish a much different regime.

The declaration of an Exclusive Economic Zone has given the United States a vast new frontier, larger than its onshore territory. The EEZ contains important natural resources, but because most of the EEZ has not been explored, its resources and their potential are largely undefined. Recently, deposits of polymetallic sulfides have been discovered in spreading centers such as the Gorda Ridge off Oregon, and cobalt-manganese nodules and crusts have been found on the flanks and tops of seamounts in the Central Pacific in the EEZs of U.S. island and trust territories. While these are years away from being commercially recoverable, seabed sources may one day become a major source of strategic and other minerals important to the U.S. economy.

Legislative authority for managing mineral resources within the EEZ is somewhat unclear. Two laws could be brought to apply: the OCS Lands Act under which the Department of the Interior has jurisdiction over the leasing of minerals on the continental shelf, and the Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act under which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Department of Commerce has jurisdiction over the recovery of ferromanganese nodule resources by U.S. citizens operating in international waters. While either of these two Acts could be utilized to accommodate development of mineral resources within the EEZ, each serves best its specific purpose. The Department of the Interior holds the view that the OCS Lands Act is an adequate vehicle for management of the mineral resources of the EEZ, but others point out that many of its provisions, such as competitive bidding, were designed for petroleum development by a mature offshore oil industry, and are not appropriate for the innovation of deep ocean hard mineral recovery. Consequently, legislation has been considered (although no action taken) to address such questions as revenue sharing, state/federal relationships, appropriate managerial procedures and safeguards, and the roles of the federal agencies, particularly the DOI and NOAA.

Continuing Concerns

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

  1. Would management of the seabed mineral resources of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone be better organized under the Department of the Interior or the Department of Commerce?
  2. If a new federal regime for management of resources within the EEZ were created, should coastal states have greater participation in development decisions and receive a portion of any royalties?

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. CRS 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.

U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Mineral Resources Development and Protection. Ocean Mining Technology. Hearing, 103rd Cong., 1st Sess. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., Nov. 4, 1994. 134 p.

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