Asteroid Bill Authors Open to International Discussions, But Not Regulatory "Yoke"

Asteroid Bill Authors Open to International Discussions, But Not Regulatory "Yoke"

A key Member of Congress and two congressional staff expounded on congressional intent in the recently enacted commercial space law at a space law and policy conference in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.  The law’s provisions regarding property rights to materials mined from asteroids were center stage and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) left no doubt that he does not want any international organization regulating those activities, but that does not rule out international discussions.

Babin provided the opening keynote at the 10th Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law on December 9. The asteroid mining provisions are controversial in the space law community because the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits countries that adhere to the Treaty (“States parties”) from claiming sovereignty over the Moon or other celestial bodies.  It also requires States parties to authorize and continually supervise the activities of their non-governmental entities, such as companies, making the governments internationally responsible for what they do in space. Supporters of the law point out that no sovereignty claims are made to celestial bodies, only property rights to materials mined from them, and the law fulfills U.S. obligations to authorize and supervise what U.S. companies are doing in space.

Babin stressed that the new U.S. law does not support the idea of any international body regulating space resource mining.  Instead, he expects the legal regime to “evolve naturally” over time with the advent of other nations’ domestic laws and development of customary practice.   The U.S. State Department, he said, could engage diplomatically with other countries as they develop their own laws that support “mutual recognition of space resource rights,” but he emphatically rejected allowing any “international body to govern space resource mining.”  Other countries might want to do that, he argued, in order to “impede” U.S. companies by establishing a “burdensome yoke of an international body around the neck of U.S. innovation.  While there is certainly a place for the U.S. to engage internationally, those efforts should focus on mutually beneficial arrangements. “

During a panel discussion later in the day, Tom Hammond, Republican staff director of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which Babin chairs, reiterated that Babin’s objection is to an international body regulating such activities, not to an international agreement.  He stressed that the law only sets forth U.S. policy.

Hammond’s Senate Democratic counterpart, Nick Cummings, agreed, saying that they knew discussions were underway in the academic and international communities and “we did not want to set those discussions back. …We want those discussions to happen.”   Cummings works for Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, who was instrumental in getting the bill through the Senate. 

International discussions involving the five U.N. space treaties usually take place through the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which are led for the United States by the State Department.  The State Department did not reply by press time to a query as to whether it plans to raise property rights in space at the 2016 meetings of COPUOS and its two subcommittees — the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, which meets in February, and the Legal Subcommittee, which meets in April.  The full COPUOS meets in June.

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