Troubled Waters

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PACIFIC ISLANDS [image, unknown] Law of the sea

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Troubled waters
Jimmy Carter had to go - if only for indicating agreement to the strategically vital Law of the Sea. US companies, their Pacific seabed mining investment threatened by plans to share mankind's 'common heritage', helped Rea on into office. Tony Marjoram considers how the dream of funding a New International Economic Order was lost.

Ronald Reagan's elevation to the White House torpedoed hopes that the tenth and 'final' session of the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would see agreement in New York in March and formal signing at Caracas in August.

Years of work by 165 nations, 132 of them developing countries (Group of 77), had hammered out 320 articles to produce a 'Draft Convention on the Law of the Sea.'

Once Reagan had won last November's presidential election, however, it came as no surprise that he would not go to a signing party. Signals for a review had been in the wind since September when the US and West Germany had tabled domestic legislation giving government protection to national mining companies.

Britain, Japan and others may follow suit, thus violating existing United Nations resolutions. All are members of the eight-state Likemind Group which - including France, Holland, Belgium and Italy - represents the developed countries with an interest in nodule mining.

The group met in November and January to discuss unilateral domestic legislation. The moves by the US and West Germany were, in part, to indicate a now or never attitude to the Group of 77 at UNCLOS. But already, Reagan and the powerful US mining lobby, which backed his election, thought the US had been too soft.

The main points at issue for Pacific states in the sabotaged treaty - an integrated package deal in which everything or nothing would be agreed - involve the generally accepted 200 mile economic zones (EEZs), delimitation of island waters, conservation and scientific research in the EEZs and, most thorny of all, the mining of the deep seabed in international waters.

Although nodules exist within EEZs of Pacific Islands - most importantly around Samoa, Cook Islands, Kiribati and French Polynesia - the crucial issues for these islands is not so much the nodules they have but the share of profits and other benefits they may reasonably expect from the exploitation of nodules in international waters.

Profit-sharing in favour of the developing countries was enshrined at the UNCLOS, recognising the nodules as the 'common heritage of mankind' and earmarking some of the revenue for the hitherto financially base-less vision of a New International Economic Order.

According to the UNCLOS III draft, nodule mining would be regulated and licensed by a 36-member International Seabed Authority (ISA) which would limit production to safeguard land-based producers, organise possible compensation and levy taxes on the miners. This would help fund the NIEO and generate cash for the proposed ISA mining operation - the Enterprise.

The Enterprise would be equipped with technology transferred from the consortia, which would also be required to provide the ISA with oceanographic data so that the 'mines' could be shared equally. This revenue and knowledge would enable the developing countries to run their own mining operation.

The industrialised nations, characteristically suspicious of regulation, baulked at this ISA proposal. And the compulsory transfer of 'hard-earned' knowledge was incompatible with the Reagan 'private enterprise ethic'.

Compromise solutions put forward by the Japanese and Henry Kissinger have elicited a cool response from the developing world. The Kissinger recipe provided for a supported Enterprise alongside private enterprise, but relegated ISA to the role of licensing body.

All that remains of plans for profit-sharing is the promise (if it still exists) by the US to place some of the revenue of domestically legislated mining in a trust fund for the use of any potential ISA. The size of contributions from private enterprise will be at the mercy of the consortia accountants. The fund may be seen as either charitable holding open of the negotiating doors or just a bribe.

Probably, what will happen now is that the consortia will see a greenish light and proceed into Phase 2 of operations which will mean the appearance of mining vessels by 1983.

Reagan's men are not interested in negotiating until after 1982 with the signing date postponed, probably, until 1985, by which time the consortia could be 'sucking and seeing' with more accurate assessments of mining profitability.

This may then induce them to encourage the opening of the negotiating door. Or it may not. Either way, the consortia will be in the box seat on the question of transfer of technology and able to dictate terms. By then the developing countries may be considerably softened-up.

Nodule copper would threaten production in Papua New Guinea (Bougainville and Ok Tedi) and possibly in Fiji (Namosi). Nodule nickel would threaten New Caledonia's production. The French may decide to dig while the sun shines so that when nodule mining comes on stream there will be little nickel left in New Caledonia. That way, the Kanaks (Melanesian New Caledonians) may never benefit from their natural resources.

Few Pacific nations are represented at UNCLOS, more a lamentable reflection on their economic impoverishment (it costs $1 million a day to run) than their ignorance or apathy.

This is especially sad considering that they are, after all, Pacific nations whose land-based resources will be seriously threatened. If they have no resources (which many do not have) they will become even more dependent on aid handouts.

Tony Marjoram is with the Centre for Applied Studies in Development at the University of the South Pacific, based in Honiara, Solomon Islands.

'Wet NASA': sucking and seeing

Seabed mining has been compared with standing on top of the Eiffel Tower on a windy day and attempting to use a hosepipe to suck up peas from the ground.

The peas on the seafloor, in the deepest parts of the oceans, are mineral rich nodules, small rocky lumps. They range in size from pinheads to coconuts and grow very slowly - one centimetre per million years has been suggested.

Because nodule formation requires very low sedimentation rates, they are generally only found below depths of around 4500 metres. And various oceanographic factors make the Pacific far more suitable to nodule formation than other oceans. But the nodules vary in composition, and those rich in the valuable 'target' metals of interest to the mining companies are found primarily in the north-eastern Pacific between the Clarion and Clipperton fracture zones - largely outside territorial waters.

Manganese nodules were first recorded by the British Challenger expedition in 1876 but, apart from scientific curiosity, they got little attention until the 1950s when an American pointed to their potential as a source of several metals, notably nickel, cobalt and copper as well as manganese. The target metal of today's mining consortia is nickel, with the others as 'sweeteners' in the polymetallic matrix.

The problems of locating and retrieving nodules are tremendous. They lie on the sea bed with a consistency of thick grease under five kilometres of water and 500 atmospheres of pressure, far from land in oceans subjected to periods of foul weather.

Mining is a complex operation, akin to a 'wet NASA'. The favoured technique is a pipestring and collector head, rather like a giant vacuum cleaner. The collector, about the size of a 20-metre-wide bungalow, is either towed or driven across the seabed, picking up and screening nodules as it moves. Uplift is provided by injected air or submerged pumps.

A small fleet of converted oil-bulk-ore carriers, modified to follow and load from the mining vessel moving at about two knots will provide transport for the crushed sludge containing up to 95 per cent waste.

The importance of having processing plant as near as possible to the mining area is obvious. Suggested processing sites for the coveted Clarion-Clipperton zone are Hawaii, Mexico, Texas (despite limitations imposed by the Panama Canal), Chile or California.

The processing plant will be the expensive part of the nodule programme, its capital costs representing around 60 per cent of total investment.

Process plant design is complicated because nodules are an oxide rather than the more usual sulphide type of ore. Various processing techniques give different extraction efficiencies which means the mining companies must suit their processes to their prophecies of future metal markets.

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New Internationalist issue 101 magazine cover This article is from the July 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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