Diverging opinions on the U.S. bill to allow asteroid mining.

Image of asteroid courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com
Image of asteroid courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

I previously mentioned the U.S. House and Senate had passed a bill which would allow private mining of asteroids. Ownership of the asteroids wouldn’t be allowed but a company extracting resources from asteroids would have lawful property rights to the material.

The law was signed – 11/26 – Space Daily – Pres. Obama signs bill recognizing asteroid resource property rights into law – The President signed the bill to allow companies to have ownership interest in resources mined from asteroids. Ownership of asteroids is not allowed, but what you mine you own.

Now for a completely different perspective:

11/27 – Gbenga Oduntan at Space Daily – Who owns space?  US asteroid-mining act is dangerous and potentially illegal Author asserts that activity in space “requires international regulation” which means the US Congress has no authority except to ratify international treaties.

Author says the first part of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires space activity be

“conducted for the benefit of and in the interest of all countries.”

The author’s understanding is that provision would prohibit mining asteroids. I’ve not looked at the treaty but would wonder how that interpretation could allow private satellites in space making money for private interests in one country. Or for that matter, how Indonesia could put up a satellite that broadcasts TV signals that benefit people in Indonesia. How does that benefit all countries?

Second reason the Congress’ action is illegal (according to the author) is the Moon Agreement of 1979, which has

…in effect forbidden states to conduct mining on planets and asteroids…

until there is an international regimen allowing such activity.

Author acknowledges the US has never signed that treaty but still argues it binds the US.

My limited knowledge of law suggests the US is not bound by treaties that other countries negotiate but we refuse to sign. We are not yet at a one-world government dystopian dictatorship, regardless of how much some people wish that were the case.

Would also wonder what the phrase ‘in effect’ means in international law. Probably whatever the professor wishes the law says. Also wonder if the Moon Agreement actually mentions asteroids, or if that is the professors personal inference.

Behind the Black suggests the new law may conflict with the Outer Space Treaty. He perceives the new law is intended to pressure the UN to revise the treaty or the first step in getting the US to withdraw.

This article sees a clear violation of the law:  11/26 – CBC News – U.S. space-mining law seen leading to possible treaty violations – A law professor, Ram Jakhu, has the personal view that natural resources in outer space should not be used by governments, private companies, or even international organizations. He uses the word ‘appropriated.’

He claims the Outer Space Treaty makes surfaces and contents of asteroids and all other celestial bodies off-limits to mining.

Article 2 of the treaty is quoted as:

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

In 1967, when only the US and USSR were reaching into space with Apollo and Soyuz capsules, with a dream of maybe, soon, likely, probably, being able to reach aaaaaall the way to the moon, that phrase makes sense.

Now that mining asteroids is a serious possibility and a manned trip to Mars is thinkable, Article 2 is almost as empty as the atmosphere on Mars.

Article acknowledges there is wide diversity of opinion on what a “celestial body” is, specifically whether an asteroid would count. Another debate would center around whether extracting resources would be “appropriating.”

As a non-attorney, it sure seems to me that an interpretation of Article 2 that says nobody can mine asteroids would prohibit placing satellites in geosynchronous orbit.  Another professor makes that same point. I trust anyone arguing there can be no commercial exploitation of space will get rid of all smart phones in the family, stop using the internet, and cancel cable TV.

The same attorney quoted at the beginning of this article says

“there really shouldn’t be any private property rights in outer space.”

I think that position means he would also argue that all the privately owned communication satellites parked in geosynchronous orbit are illegal.

At least we know where he stands.

Again, as a nonattorney, it sure seems to me like a few medium-sized law firms could be kept busy arguing whether private companies mining asteroids constitutes “national appropriation.”

For the last article for this particular post, I am relieved to check in with Prof. Glenn Reynolds:

11/30 – Glenn Reynolds at USA Today – Cashing in on the Final Frontier – article quotes the new law:

A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resources or resources obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resources are space resources obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.

Prof. Reynolds goes on to point out there is debate whether “national appropriation” applies to private companies. There is debate whether “celestial bodies” would include any asteroids, with an even weaker argument the law applies to small asteroids. One interpretation for the purpose of the Outer Space Treaty is to prevent people from claiming sovereignty over stuff in space, and not to prevent any economic use thereof.

Article suggests one big asteroid could have $20 trillion of minerals. A small asteroid, merely 79 feet in diameter could have as much is 33,000 tons of usable metals which would include $50M of platinum according to the article. For the real value of those resources, consider all those tons of metals would not have to be lifted into orbit before you could start refining. That would shave thousands of dollars an ounce off the cost of raw material.

So there will be lots of room to argue and quibble for a long time to come.

When it comes to pondering the mining of asteroids, I am sure socialists, statists, crony capitalists, and Luddites will see one thing.

There are others, perhaps people who have a heritage of knowing an open frontier can create prosperity and economic growth that is unimaginable and available for anyone who wants to make the effort, who will see something else.

I think you know where I stand.

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