The Seabed Power Struggle


On June 20, 1974, delegations representing the governments of 150 nations will convene in Caracas, Venezuela. The occasion is the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. Of all the many issues to come before the conference, none is of greater long-term consequence than the issue of jurisdiction over the seabed—the "land" at the bottom of the world's oceans. On the agenda, with widespread support from a majority of U.N. members, is a proposal to declare seabed resources "the common heritage of mankind," under the sole jurisdiction of the United Nations. Any would-be miner of seabed minerals would have to apply to a U.N. seabed authority for a permit, and would be forced to pay the bulk of his profits to a U.N. fund to aid the underdeveloped countries.

While the diplomats debate this proposal, 2,000 miles to the west a strange-looking ship moves at a snail's pace across the surface of the Pacific. A tall derrick towers over an open well in the center of the hull; beneath the ship lurks a submarine barge, from which a long pipeline snakes thousands of feet down to a dredge which creeps along the ocean floor, sucking up potato-sized lumps, rich in manganese, copper, nickel, and cobalt.

The ship is the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a 36,000-ton, 618-foot experimental mining ship operated by Summa Corporation, whose sole owner is Howard R. Hughes. The scene just described is not fantasy; even as this article goes to press the Explorer is on station somewhere in the Pacific, from its base of operations in Nicaragua.

Reminiscent of scenes from ATLAS SHRUGGED, the conflict between billionaire industrialist Hughes and the diplomatic might of the United Nations is very real.

The outcome of this struggle will have tremendous implications—not only for Howard Hughes and a dozen or so other enterprisers, but also for the economic well-being of both the "developing" and the developed countries of the world, for the authority and legitimacy of the United Nations, for the shape of international law, and the future of freedom on the two-thirds of the earth's surface covered by the oceans.

The stakes are high—to appreciate how high requires a look at the history of maritime law, the development of ocean mining technology, and a bit of natural resources economics. Let's begin with the existing law of the sea.


Throughout history international law has considered the seas as being beyond the jurisdiction of any state. The general rule has been "freedom of the seas," i.e. the right of anyone to make use of the seas for navigation, trade, and fishing, limited only by the boundaries of each nation's small offshore area. Until recently, this has meant the 3-mile limit claimed by most governments, or the 12-mile limit claimed by a few others.

After World War II, however, a new trend began. In 1945 President Truman asserted that the U.S. government possessed exclusive title to the resources of the Continental Shelf surrounding the United States. Although Truman's proclamation excluded any claims to jurisdiction over the waters above the Shelf or any restriction on navigation, the example had been set, nevertheless. In short order Ecuador, Peru, and Chile made new claims to offshore territory, out to a distance of as much as 200 miles. In each case Truman's declaration was cited as a precedent. In the case of Ecuador and Peru, the jurisdiction included both the water and navigation rights, in an effort to protect those nations' fishing industries. In recent years various American fishing interests have urged the U.S. government to take similar action, to keep European and Russian trawlers out of the New England offshore fishing areas.

This type of bickering led to the 1958 Geneva Conference on the Law of the Sea, attended by delegates of most maritime nations. The conference worked out an agreement about the Continental Shelf, called the 1958 Convention, which defined the shelf as "the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas adjacent to the coast, but outside the area of the territorial sea, to a depth of 200 meters or, beyond that limit, to where the depth of the superadjacent waters admit of the exploitation of the natural resources of the said area." The conferees agreed that the seabed area so defined is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the adjacent nation's government.

At the time of the Convention, this definition closely approximated the area commonly thought of as the Continental Shelf, since exploitation of resources at depths below 200 meters (665 feet) was considered fairly unlikely. Since 1958, however, technology has made major advances. Semisubmersible platforms have made it possible to drill for oil at depths of several thousand feet. A whole generation of self-propelled manned submersibles has been created for undersea exploration work, one of which has the capability of diving to 15,000 feet. And beginning in 1969 the Glomar Challenger, a research vessel of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, began a series of historic voyages taking core samples from the ocean floor. Equipped with the latest drilling equipment and a sophisticated position-keeping system, the Challenger drilled successfully in waters over 20,000 feet deep. Whereas the continental shelves include about 10 percent of the sea floor, some 98 percent of the seabed is under less than 20,000 feet of water, and is now potentially exploitable. Hence, the 1958 definition of the Continental Shelf in terms of exploitability is clearly inadequate.

As if to underscore this point, the U.S. Department of Interior has issued oil and gas leases well beyond the three-mile limit, some of which have exceeded the 200-meter depth limit as well. Indeed, drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf is considered by Interior to be a key element of the recently-launched "Project Independence." The National Petroleum Council has urged the government to declare sovereignty over not only the Continental Shelves, but also the adjacent slopes and rises out to where these slopes meet the abyssal plains of the deep seabed—typically at depths around 10,000 feet. The NPC states that any narrower claim of jurisdiction "would amount to a giveaway of resources to which the nation is entitled."

The controversy over continental shelf jurisdiction led to a number of unofficial conferences in 1969, and to the formation of a United Nations "Permanent Committee on Peaceful Uses of the Seabed and Ocean Floor Beyond the Limits of National Jurisdiction." The Seabed Committee (as it has come to be known) held a four-week conference in 1970, followed by a number of planning sessions in subsequent years. The Committee's work culminated in plans for a decisive Law of the Sea Conference, several times postponed, and now at last convening in Caracas.


While the world's diplomats and political scientists debated the issued, engineers and entrepreneurs began the development of a new technology, whose commercial potential rivals that of offshore oil: mining the deep seabed (beyond the Continental Shelf) for manganese nodules. First discovered on the 1872 voyage of the British ship Challenger, (for which the Glomar Challenger was named), manganese nodules are potato-size lumps of rock which lie in dense beds on the ocean floor. Typical nodules contain 25-30 percent manganese, 1-1.5 percent nickel, 1-1.5 percent copper, and 0.5-1.5 percent cobalt—the copper and nickel percentages are greater than in most current land-mined ores. All four minerals are of crucial importance to our technological civilization (e.g., for steelmaking), and all except copper are supplied in the U.S. largely as imports, mostly from the developing countries. Geologists estimate the total quantity of nodules to be trillions of tons; fortunately for would-be miners, the nodules frequently seem to occur in relatively compact clusters. Many nodule beds have been mapped during the past decade, especially in the Pacific southwest of Hawaii.

The pioneer in developing manganese nodule mining technology is Virginia-based Deepsea Ventures, a subsidiary of Tenneco, which initiated serious research and development in 1963. Since that date, Deepsea has been joined by such firms as Kennecott, International Nickel, Shell, Union Carbide, U.S. Steel, Bethlehem Steel, and Ocean Resources, Inc., plus, of course, Summa Corporation. Foreign companies and governments are also at work. Japan's Sumitomo Group is among the 24 firms belonging to the Ocean Resources mining consortium. Germany's Metallgesellschaft AG and Preussag AG, and France's Societe le Nickel were among the 18 organizations in five countries found by the U.S. Geological Survey to be engaged in nodule recovery and process technology development as early as 1971. Deepsea Ventures has invested $150-200 million in ocean mining development, and Kennecott recently announced a new $50 million, five-year research program. Secretive Summa Corporation, apparently the leader in actual mining technology, has released no figures on its investment to date, but its mining equipment is considered to be the most sophisticated yet developed.

The technology involved in recovering minerals from the seabed is prodigious. Both the Summa and Deepsea systems operate with a sea-floor dredge head, which sucks in water and nodules like a giant vacuum cleaner. The Summa system was designed by Lockheed Missiles and Space Company (developer of manned submersibles, also) and Global Marine, Inc. (operators of the Glomar Challenger). In it, the nodules are cleaned and crushed, then pumped up a several-mile-long pipe to the mining ship. Ocean Resources, Inc. has tested a simpler but less reliable system involving a series of scoops or buckets mounted on an extremely long loop of cable; a traction drive on the ship drags the buckets along the bottom and hauls them up to the surface in a continuous dredging process.

But collecting the nodules is only part of the story. To be of any use, they must be chemically processed at land-based processing plants. Kennecott has operated several pilot processing plants using an ammonia leaching process and is currently designing a full-scale plant. Deepsea Ventures has spent the past several years perfecting a wet process treatment that recovers 95 percent of the metal in the nodules, producing sheets of pure manganese, nickel, copper, and cobalt. The company plans a full-scale operation designed to process a million tons of nodules per year, yielding all four metals in commercial quantities. Kennecott, International Nickel, and several other companies consider the nodules' copper and nickel to be the real prize, and their processing operations assume manganese to be a by-product. Summa is apparently concentrating solely on the mining end, leaving the processing to other companies.


Estimates of the actual commercial potential of manganese nodules vary, depending on the source. Using 1967 figures, a World Bank study estimated that if enough nodules were processed each year to meet the total world demand for cobalt (at 1967 levels), the needed 6.5 million tons of nodules would simultaneously produce 22 percent of the annual demand for manganese, 0.9 percent of the demand for copper, and 13 percent of the annual demand for nickel. Just the Deepsea Ventures and Summa Corporation mining efforts (if they achieve their target annual production rates of one million, and three to four million tons, respectively) would come close to supplying these amounts.

John L. Mero, president of Ocean Resources, thinks ocean mining will produce a glut of manganese, as companies go after the more valuable copper, nickel, and cobalt. If 100 million tons of nodules were mined per year, Mero estimates, processing would yield 1.5 million tons of copper, one-third of the noncommunist world's annual demand. Production at those levels would also yield three times the current annual noncommunist demand for nickel, along with 240,000 tons of cobalt. Mero's figures indicate that each dollar of capital investment in ocean mining will yield three dollars a year in minerals, while each dollar invested in land mining yields only 25 cents per year. Figures of this sort lead Mero to predict that within 10 years of the first commercial nodule mining, land-based nickel mines will close down, followed within 20 years by the bulk of the copper mines.

Although Mero's figures are considered by some to be overly optimistic, the potential of ocean mining to provide sizable amounts of manganese, nickel, copper, and cobalt appears certain. The extent of this potential, and its impact on both the mining entrepreneurs and the existing producers, provides the explanation for a movement that is reaching its climax with the Law of the Sea Conference.


For the past seven years the idea that the deep seabed should be declared the "common heritage of all mankind" has been gaining momentum. Under the common heritage principle, jurisdiction over the seabed would be vested in a collective agency, probably an arm of the U.N., which would see to it that the benefits of exploiting seabed resources were divided up among nations on the basis of need. The differences between the common heritage approach and existing law based on freedom of the seas are summarized in the accompanying table.

The movement to promote this idea began in November 1967 with a speech to the U.N. General Assembly Political Committee by Dr. Arvid Pardo, the delegate from Malta (an island nation of 122 square miles and a population less than that of Louisville, Kentucky). Pardo proposed the appointment of a group to draft a U.N. resolution providing that "the net benefits of the exploitation of the seabed's resources would go primarily to the development of the poor countries."

Two themes kept cropping up in Pardo's speech as purported rationales for the new approach—the arms race and colonialism:

Present and clearly foreseeable technology also permits effective exploitation [of the seabed] for military or economic purposes. Some countries may be tempted to achieve near-unbreakable world dominance through predominant control of the seabed.…The process has already started and will lead to a competitive scramble for sovereign rights over the land underlying the world's seas and oceans, surpassing in magnitude and in its implications last century's colonial scramble in Asia and Africa. The consequences will be very grave: at the very least, a dramatic escalation of the arms race and sharply increasing world tensions, caused also by the intolerable injustice that would reserve the resources for the exclusive benefit of less than a handful of nations.

Pardo's raising of these issues appears highly exaggerated. The oceanic arms race has been going on for decades, and it's not at all clear that ocean mining will cause a "dramatic escalation," even if there are disputes about claims. Further, it is hardly clear that a U.N.-type regime would be the best way to minimize such conflicts, should they occur. And the analogy with African colonialism is strained; in the latter case, the main objection was that the inhabitants of the colonized areas were subjected to external rule, and had their resources taken away. The seabed, of course, has no inhabitants. However, the majority of U.N. delegates are from countries which are former colonies, and for whom the word "colonialism" brings forth powerful emotional reactions (as it does for many of today's liberals). As such, it is a useful tool for people with aims such as Pardo's.

The Pardo speech fell on fertile ground. Little more than a month later, SCIENCE, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published an extensive article on the seabed, taking no position on Pardo's proposal, per se, but agreeing that the question to be decided was how the seabed's resources are to be "divided up." Shortly before leaving office, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a prestigious commission, chaired by ex-MIT president Julius Stratton, to develop long-term recommendations for government ocean policy. Johnson made no bones about what he expected the commission to recommend: "Under no circumstances…must we ever allow the prospects of [the sea's] rich harvest and mineral wealth to create a new form of colonial competition among the maritime nations. We must ensure that the deep seas and the ocean bottom are, and remain, the legacy of all human beings." True to form, the Stratton Commission early in 1969 recommended the establishment of an international authority to register all claims beyond the Continental Shelf, with the claimant paying both a registration fee and royalties on all output, to be used to aid the developing countries. It urged the United States to "seize the opportunity for leadership which the present situation demands," by working to make these proposals a reality.

The common heritage theme was indeed seized—by the media. That July, MIT's respected TECHNOLOGY REVIEW endorsed the Stratton Commission's recommendations, in an article by economist David Brooks of the U.S. Bureau of Mines. In September, a special issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN featured a lead article by Roger Revelle urging U.S. policy to be based on the principle that seabed resources "are the common heritage of all mankind and shall be used and conserved in the common interest of all men. All countries shall participate in an equitable manner in the benefits gained from these resources." In a companion piece, oceanographer Warren Wooster also endorsed the common heritage principle, because it was responsive to "a strong feeling among the disadvantaged nations that the resources of the deep seabed should ultimately benefit those with the greatest needs." In November, Sam Pope Brewer wrote a series of news analysis articles in the NEW YORK TIMES arguing that the common heritage principle was "equitable" and provided for a "really just settlement." And on December 1 the TIMES editorially endorsed common heritage, citing the dangers of "a new era of colonial competition." Thus, the public was well-prepared by the media for the General Assembly's December 16, 1969 adoption, by a 62 to 28 vote, of a resolution stating that pending establishment of an "international regime" for the seabed, states and individuals were "bound to refrain" from all exploitation of the seabed beyond territorial limits. In addition, "No claims to any part of that area or its resources shall be recognized."

Of course, nobody pays much attention to U.N. resolutions, among other reasons, because there is no inherent enforcement mechanism. Thus, it is not surprising that there was no public outcry at the U.N.'s resolution, not even from Deepsea Ventures, Kennecott, or any of the others then working on ocean mining technology. But the situation changed dramatically in May of 1970 when President Nixon, at the urging of the State Department, proposed an international seabed treaty renouncing all U.S. territorial claims beyond the 200-meter depth, accepting the common heritage principle beyond that depth, and promising "substantial royalties" (figures ranging from 50 to 66 percent of revenues were mentioned privately) to the developing countries. Clearly, a treaty signed by the U.S. government carries far more weight than a Presidential commission's vague policy recommendation or a grandiose U.N. resolution. Thus, mining company interests at last became alarmed and complained to Congress. In July Senators Jackson, Allott, Metcalf, and Bellmon protested the proposed treaty to Secretary of State Rogers. As a result, a cover sheet was hastily added, downgrading the proposal to the status of a "working paper" for its formal presentation to the August 1970 conference of the U.N. Seabed Committee.


While this politicking was taking place, the common heritage advocates convened an international conference, Pacem in Maribus, (Peace in the Oceans) in Malta, to promote their views on setting up a seabed regime. Pacem in Maribus was the brainchild of Elisabeth Mann Borgese and Lord Ritchie-Calder of Balmashannar, both fellows of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, which sponsored and paid for the conference. Although the event succeeded in generating substantial publicity for the common heritage concept, Ms. Borgese reported that the conferees generally denounced the Nixon treaty proposal because "it did not go far enough." In particular, Borgese considered the treaty's interpretation of the common heritage concept to be "far too restrictive to be acceptable to the international community."

Elisabeth Borgese has been very clear about what she is after. If the oceans and the ocean environment belong to humanity as a whole, this concept "abolishes the principle of donor and recipient nations, and substitutes for it the idea of rightful and equitable sharing among all nations of what belongs to them in common." Conferee Wolfgang Vitzhum agreed, stating that with establishment of an ocean regime, "At least in one area the odious distinction between donor nations and recipient nations would be abolished. A new beginning would be made." A beginning of what? Borgese replies that the 1970's require "a new kind of planning" that "disregards ownership." Recognizing the magnitude of this task, she stated boldly: "We are developing a new concept of man."

The Malta conference added a third supposed argument to the "arms race" and "colonialism" as justifications for an ocean regime: ecology. "Ocean Crisis Poses Threat to Man's Ability to Survive," reads an August 1970 headline on Pacem in Maribus. "Quite clearly," wrote reporter Robert Sollen, "the entire ecology of the oceans is threatened, and with it, man's ability to survive." This kind of alarmism was very popular in the Earth Day atmosphere of 1970, but the excessive zeal of many environmentalists over the past few years has caused thoughtful people to demand evidence before making sweeping environmental judgments. As a matter of fact, reports Allen Hammond in SCIENCE, "Many oceanographers do not believe that [seabed] mining itself will do much permanent damage to the oceans as a whole…because of the relatively small areas to be affected."

Indeed, the oceans cover 141 million square miles. John Flipse, president of Deepsea Ventures, estimates that a tract of only a thousand square miles, with a bottom density of 2.5 pounds of nodules per square foot (of which Deepsea has already located five in the Pacific) would be profitable for some 20 years of mining. If a hundred such tracts were in full operation, this would account for seven-hundredths of one percent of the total area of the oceans. Furthermore, Hammond reports that the areas in which manganese nodules are found "are in many respects biological deserts."

Lord Ritchie-Calder has charged that some corporations will do their primary nodule refining at sea and will dump acid and alkaline wastes overboard. "Nobody knows what effect this will have on ocean ecology," he warns. Yet his call for alarm seems premature. None of the current mining ventures contemplates refining the nodules anyplace but on dry land, and the economics of processing plant construction and operation are likely to keep things that way.


Since the 1970 Malta conference, progress towards implementing the common heritage principle has been halting. A second Pacem in Maribus conference was held in 1971, again with favorable publicity from the media. Elsewhere, however, the proposal continued to generate controversy. In March 1971 the Senate Interior Subcommittee on the Outer Continental Shelf issued a report opposing the Nixon treaty proposal. That same month the National Petroleum Council also urged a complete revision of the President's seabed proposals. The Marine Technology Society sponsored a sea law conference in Washington, at which the divergent views were debated. A similar scene prevailed at the April 1971 Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), where a special joint session was held with 500 members of the American Bar Association to discuss seabed law. Washington attorney Northcutt Ely exemplified the freedom of the seas position in proposing that efforts to write a new seabed law "should be dropped.…We should oppose—not propose—the creation of a worldwide offshore authority to raise costs to American consumers as this treaty will do." Garnering most of the publicity, however, were Dr. Arvid Pardo of Malta, and Dr. Julius A. Stratton, who was given the OTC Distinguished Achievement Award for his work on the President's Commission on Marine Science, Engineering, and Resources.

That an organization composed of representatives of offshore resource developers should give their highest award to the author of a proposal to tax and regulate them (perhaps out of existence) is illustrative of the confused state of the industry as recently as 1971. It was not until 1973 that any serious, active industry opposition to the common heritage principle began to be developed. And unfortunately, the form that this opposition took strongly damaged the credibility of the mining industry. In 1973 the American Mining Congress put together an ocean mining bill, under which the U.S. government would grant companies 40-year licenses to tracts of ocean floor 40,000 kilometers square, and underwrite any company losses during the 40-year period, in exchange for a $5000 license fee. In addition, the bill provided that the U.S. would agree to respect nonconflicting claims to mining tracts authorized by other national governments, so long as they passed similar laws. The bill was introduced into Congress by Senator Lee Metcalf, who later disclaimed sponsorship, so blatant were the bill's subsidy provisions. Fortunately, the bill has been laid quietly to rest.

The approach represented in the Metcalf bill illustrates the disappointing failure of many of today's industrialists to think in principles. They object to a collective body asserting the right to expropriate a portion of what they have worked hard—with their own resources—to produce. Yet their proposed solution falls back on government subsidy of their losses, provided by expropriating part of the money that American citizens have worked hard to produce. What is wrong for a collective of foreigners to do is equally wrong for a collective of Americans to do. Expropriation is expropriation, whether it is called "equitable distribution of the common heritage of mankind" or "government underwriting of the costs and risks of developing ocean mining technology." Another word for it is theft.


The mining interests were partially on the right track, however, in asserting the need for registering claims. The basic principle is simply that seabed minerals are an unowned resource (as is the seabed itself), available to whoever makes the effort to claim them. The seabed is a frontier area, much like the American West (albeit without Indian inhabitants with possibly conflicting claims to territory and resources). U.S. mining law developed in a laissez-faire atmosphere, based on largely rational, common- sense principles of "first-come, first-served." When a miner located a promising spot, he staked out a claim to a piece of land of a size he could work, and registered it with the authorities. If he was the first to register the claim, it was recognized as his property.

The same principles can be applied to the seabed. Modern systems of navigation permit ship locations to be known with great accuracy. Defining specific claims to seabed territory poses no particular problems, nor does marking them with stationary buoys, if necessary. Frequent surveillance to detect claim-jumpers is possible via satellites such as ERTS-1 and its successors, equipped with high-resolution, multispectral photographic systems and telemetry for relaying the pictures to ground stations at frequent intervals. A public registry of claims would inform all interested parties of those areas already being worked. None of this need involve the U.N., dominated as it is by a majority of countries with no legitimate interest in the seabed.

Fortunately, several ocean mining executives seem to favor this type of approach. Malcolm Wilkey of Kennecott proposed "a simple registry where claims would be filed on a first-come, first-recorded basis," as early as 1970. John Flipse and Deepsea Ventures counsel Richard Greenwald have proposed that Congress establish a U.S. national registry for seabed mining claims, and that as other sea-mining nations pass similar legislation, the U.S. should reach agreements with them for mutual recognition of claims. T.S. Ary, vice-president of Union Carbide Exploration Corp., has suggested bypassing the U.N. in favor of mutual agreements on claim recognition between nations whose companies are involved in ocean mining.

All of this makes very good sense. Unfortunately, the mining companies are very late in bringing their story before the public. The advocates of the common heritage concept have a seven-year head start, and the advantage of a left-leaning press that has given them tremendous exposure. And the American Mining Congress committed an incredible PR blunder by proposing the Metcalf subsidy bill.

Still, there may yet be time to turn things around. The past year has seen a flurry of activity within the Nixon Administration regarding the forthcoming Law of the Sea Conference. Largely at the urging of outgoing Treasury Secretary George Shultz, government analysts have been conducting a "drastic reassessment of previously stated U.S. positions." Four Treasury economists were assigned full-time to study seabed issues, starting in March 1973, and reportedly U.S. officials "do not rule out the possibility that, after close analysis, some tenets in the U.S. position could be discarded." Specifically, Shultz's free-market economists question whether a strong international seabed authority is in the U.S.'s economic interest, and are reconsidering the "feasibility" of the common heritage concept.

What has probably shaken the government out of its altruist "idealism" is the energy crisis and the Arab oil embargo. Already the developing nations in the U.N. have begun to prepare plans to emulate the Arabs' success in holding up the developed countries. Organized as the Group of 77 (actually numbering 96 countries), they conducted a special assembly on raw materials and development in April of this year. The assembly adopted a four-point program calling for:

• The absolute right of developing nations to nationalize natural resources, without compensation to producers
• Extension of aid to national liberation movements
• Linking the prices of raw materials with those of manufactured goods, and
• Establishment of cartels among nations producing raw materials.

It is the first and fourth of these proposals, for nationalization and cartelization, that portend future shortages of key raw materials—such as copper, nickel, cobalt, and manganese. The U.S. currently imports 20 percent of its copper, 84 percent of its nickel, 92 percent of its cobalt, and 95 percent of its manganese. In 1971, the developing nations produced half the world's supply of copper, one-quarter of its nickel, three-fourths of its cobalt, and one-third of its manganese. Thus, although the U.S. is now highly dependent on the developing countries for three of these four minerals (all except nickel), the unhampered development of ocean mining would ensure an adequate supply.

Plainly, it would also torpedo any cartel among producers of these key minerals. Countries such as Gabon and Brazil (manganese), Chile and Zambia (copper), and Zaire (manganese and cobalt) therefore have an especially large stake in promoting the common heritage approach. It is not just a new rip-off they are after (as in the case of nonproducer countries like Malta); their existing hold on mineral producers and consumers is severely threatened by the development of ocean mining.


The U.S. government should enunciate a new policy regarding the law of the sea. It should junk the 1970 Nixon treaty proposal entirely, and reaffirm its support for freedom of the seas. It should therefore unilaterally renounce all territorial ambitions to the seabed, while simultaneously endorsing the principle of first-come, first-served for all ocean development enterprises. In short, it should take a firm stand for private property rights on the seabed, free of sovereignty, taxation, and regulation. Exempting ocean development ventures from taxation would underscore the lack of U.S. territorial ambitions to the seabed. (How can the government tax where it has no sovereignty?) And unless the U.S. were prepared to commit the U.S. Navy to their defense, taxing such ventures would be no different in principle from the U.N.'s proposed rip-off. By not taxing ocean ventures, and not declaring sovereignty, the U.S. government would make very clear the moral difference between freedom of the seas and the common heritage concept.

There is indeed a need for a "rule of law" concerning the seabed, as Lord Ritchie-Calder demands. But a rule of law need not be U.N.-made statute law, and must not be a scheme for legalized plunder of the producers. A law of the seabed based on mutual respect for established mining claims can evolve in common-law fashion, to protect the rights of those involved. And in the long run, the developing nations will be better served by unhampered production than by continued rip-offs.

John Mero of Ocean Resources points out that "If the mineral producing countries really want to make money, they can go out to sea like us. As for the U.N. collecting royalties, the poorer countries would do better to make good on their own with the help of the cheap minerals we'll be producing." Adds John Flipse of Deepsea Ventures, "If we develop this new technology, this will make those minerals available to the world market. Without this new supply, at the rate copper prices are going up right now, the chances of Africa getting copper wire for developing an electric system are zero."

The proper prescription for the law of the sea consists of a single, uncomplicated word: laissez-faire.

Executive Editor Robert Poole, Jr. is director of marketing for a California think tank. An engineering graduate of MIT, Mr. Poole has been a student of seabed developments for the past six years His earlier article on the subject, "The Wave of the Future, the Future of the Waves," appeared in the December 1969 issue of REASON and was reprinted in condensed form as "The Wealth of the Oceans" in the August 1970 issue of THE FREEMAN.