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Who’s Going to Clean Up This Mess..? March 2, 2008

Posted by shubber in Congress, distracting PR, hot air, investment, NSS, offworlding, public service announcement, PYMWYMI, smack talk, space.
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I recently received an email alert from the National Space Society (NSS) urging me to contact my Senators to strongly encourage them to reject ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).

They lay out a number of interesting, if highly debatable, arguments, including “it can set precedent that would render the even grander resources of outer-space impossible to develop.”

Leave aside for the moment that there are no practical means to recover Bob Zubrin’s Trillion Dollar Asteroid ™, the implication they are making is that hordes of investors that might otherwise pile their cash into the wide range of fund-able space ventures panhandling on the local street corner are instead averting their gaze and shoving their hands in their pockets (to protect their wallets) as they hurry by the seemingly unattractive alt.space companies.

What I found quite interesting was this little snippet in the NSS’s missive:

Nations that sponsor* seabed mining companies are financially liable for damages caused by their citizens. This discourages development, as developed nations are often unwilling to pay for damages of this sort.

*emphasis added by the Cynic

So who does the NSS think *should* be responsible for damage done to the seafloor (and the ecosystem there) if not the sponsor of the company creating the damage? No one? How very anarchist of them.

Further, the NSS seems to have a contradiction buried in their position – on the one hand, they don’t wanted the dreaded black helicopters of an international body in any way having oversight on the activities of individual nations (playing the nationalist card) while on the other hand saying that we need to be able to engage in this sort of exploration for “the sake of our global civilization.”

If you assume some form of regulation should be in place and that the concept of a “free” market still includes a basic level of government oversight, then the question is WHICH government body is the best home for this sort of regulation? We have international regulation for a whole range of issues related to space (such as the ITU and coordination/issuing of frequencies for satellite communications and operations), and they work quite well – perhaps bureaucratically at times, but better than the alternative (anarchistic behavior).

If you think all regulation is bad regulation, perhaps you’d prefer a world without safety standards, drug testing standards, food testing standards (ok, the USDA has become more of a joke over the years, the latest downer cow scandal really making them look like fools in the pocket of big Ag, but at least we’re not in the world of Upton Sinclair any more…) and the like. The tragedy of the commons is a proven phenomenon, and frankly I’d prefer a little regulation than just trusting my fellow man to do the “right thing” when it comes to resource exploitation. Especially if they don’t feel the need to clean up after themselves.

But this is really much ado about nothing, because I believe that if/when we actually have the means to engage in massive development of outer space this issue will be revisited and adjusted as needed. It does make for some great fundraising fodder for the likes of the NSS, though…

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Comments»

1. Caitlyn - March 2, 2008

I’m impressed by your post because it captures the essence of the narrow but intense opposition to US ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention. Only one part of the fifteen that comprise the convention deal with resources beyond national jurisdiction, but for ideological reasons, that part got a lot of attention – so much that it was finally renegotiated in 1994 to meet all of Ronald Reagan’s requirements. What it didn’t do was turn the deep seabed into an international free-for-all. All governments agreed that miners would need to be regulated much as they are on land, but this did not set well with the most extreme appointees in the Reagan Administration who wanted to give private property rights to the first claimants to the seabed. Even though every president since Harry Truman, including Ronald Reagan, sought only exclusive mining rights under fair and reasonable regulation, the extremists still push for self-monitoring and self-regulation by developers without requiring responsibility for damages.

Without the US joining the Convention, there will be no seabed mining under US flag, but the eight foreign and multilateral consortia already recognized under the convention will develop deep seabed minerals and we will have the opportunity to learn from the good and the bad experiences that occur. The lessons from the deep seabed, whatever they are, should be helpful to future generations when development of the resources of the moon and other bodies are contemplated.

2. madmilker - March 3, 2008

Shawnee Chief Tecumseh said it best in his speech to General William Henry Harrison!

3. Bart - March 4, 2008

Whups! Too many double arrows I guess. I missed a few points.

Leave aside for the moment that there are no practical means to recover Bob Zubrin’s Trillion Dollar Asteroid ™
To which I would add: not yet. Actually, I believe John Lewis (author of Mining the Sky) was the first one to speculate on the trillion-dollar asteroid. And, as we have argued, there will be few incentives to mine said asteroids if the U.N. has a stranglehold on future exploration and, yes, exploitation of the solar system’s resources.

So who does the NSS think *should* be responsible for damage done to the seafloor (and the ecosystem there) if not the sponsor of the company creating the damage? No one? How very anarchist of them.
When a 747 crashes into someone’s yard, or even in an empty field somewhere, the United States Government is not responsible for the damage done to or by the airplane. That responsibility belongs to the airline or carrier whose markings the 747 bears. That is what insurance is for. If the U.S. taxpayers were directly responsible every time something went awry with a machine made by a publicly or privately held corporation, no machines would be allowed to be built, much less fly, dig, or do anything else. The joys of the limited-liability or joint stock corporation have been known since the 18th century, and they are what make it possible for entrepreneurs, not governments, to develop the resources of the world.

on the one hand, they don’t wanted the dreaded black helicopters of an international body in any way having oversight on the activities of individual nations (playing the nationalist card) while on the other hand saying that we need to be able to engage in this sort of exploration for “the sake of our global civilization.”
One can still be pro-civilization without being pro-U.N. We support a civilization of independent nation-states competing peacefully in trade and resource development while regulated by local (national) laws. Disputes can be handled via one-on-one negotiation.

the implication they are making is that hordes of investors that might otherwise pile their cash into the wide range of fund-able space ventures panhandling on the local street corner are instead averting their gaze and shoving their hands in their pockets (to protect their wallets) as they hurry by the seemingly unattractive alt.space companies.
That is one implication, yes. Investors are not stupid. If they see that an industry is likely to be hamstrung by U.N. regulations, taxes, “contributions,” technology transfers, etc., they’ll take their money elsewhere.

If you assume some form of regulation should be in place and that the concept of a “free” market still includes a basic level of government oversight, then the question is WHICH government body is the best home for this sort of regulation? We have international regulation for a whole range of issues related to space (such as the ITU and coordination/issuing of frequencies for satellite communications and operations), and they work quite well – perhaps bureaucratically at times, but better than the alternative (anarchistic behavior).
Again, U.S.-flag companies should be governed by U.S. law, which includes environmental regulation.

If you think all regulation is bad regulation, perhaps you’d prefer a world without safety standards, drug testing standards, food testing standards (ok, the USDA has become more of a joke over the years, the latest downer cow scandal really making them look like fools in the pocket of big Ag, but at least we’re not in the world of Upton Sinclair any more…) and the like. The tragedy of the commons is a proven phenomenon, and frankly I’d prefer a little regulation than just trusting my fellow man to do the “right thing” when it comes to resource exploitation. Especially if they don’t feel the need to clean up after themselves.
U.S. regulations are already quite burdensome enough. Submitting to additional anti-U.S., anti-capitalist rules and regs will only make things worse. There are ways, however, for the U.S. government to provide incentives that a) encourage technology development and b) encourage responsible development of said technologies.

But this is really much ado about nothing, because I believe that if/when we actually have the means to engage in massive development of outer space this issue will be revisited and adjusted as needed. It does make for some great fundraising fodder for the likes of the NSS, though…
We are already reaching a point where the resources of space will become critical to the world’s economy. Oil has now found a comfortable resting place around $100/barrel. Precious metals are not getting any cheaper, either. We can continue to mine for such things here on Earth, wrecking the environment here with runoff and other side-effects, or we can start efforts to mine the asteroids. We are shooting ourselves in the collective foot if we subject the companies making those efforts to a multi-national organization that cares nothing for profit, except where those profits can be siphoned off to feed the U.N. bureaucracy. Reasonable companies will not operate under those restrictions. If they did, they would go bankrupt without government bailout or subsidy. If they did that, the government would soon own said businesses, in which case socialism would triumph, and that is exactly what we are trying to prevent.

4. Monte Davis - March 6, 2008

if/when we actually have the means… this issue will be revisited and adjusted as needed.

Exactly. The proposition that it’s a significant obstacle to space investment now or in the near future is (1) libertarian/Reaganite/New World Order fantasy, and (2) a handy way to avoid thinking about much greater economic and technical obstacles.

5. nick - March 27, 2008

“it can set precedent that would render the even grander resources of outer-space impossible to develop.”

The NSS is quite right on this one. Your argument confuses VC timeframes with legal timeframes. You are quite correct that this precedent won’t effect today’s space investors, but legal precedents can last hundreds of years, and future space investors will be cursing us. Legal precedents often cannot simply be “revisited when the time comes.”

6. Monte Davis - March 28, 2008

Nick: The precedents that impress me more are in the long, long list of treaties broken when someone wanted something bad enough. If you can’t find some Native Americans to refresh your memory, just watch the Arctic basin over the next couple of decades.


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