Plundering the Deep: Ronald Reagan, the Free Market, and Deep-Sea Mining


One of the least remembered but important environmental justice battles in the 1980s was waged between the Ronald Reagan administration, environmentalists, and developing countries for the fate of the bottom of the ocean. By the late 1970s, advances in deep sea exploration had overturned much of previous scientific thought about the possibilities of the ocean beyond 4,000 meters. Increasingly nimble submersible vehicles were able to venture into increasingly dark, crushing depths and had uncovered a goldmine of new information about what was far below the waves.

The first major discovery was that, contrary to previous scientific assumptions, the deep-sea had an incredible amount of biodiversity. Despite our relative lack of knowledge of ecosystems below crushing depths, it may very well constitute the largest overall biomass on the planet. In 1977, hydrothermal vents were discovered in the Galapagos Rift of the Pacific Ocean that supported life, most notably: species of tubeworms. This discovery was particularly important because it offered the first glimpse of organisms that could live and thrive on the heat and inorganic matter of the vents, completely independent of the sun cycle that was thought to be necessary for life on land and elsewhere.

The second major discovery was that the deep sea itself was quite literally a goldmine. The thermodynamic vents were not only discovered to be mineral rich, but it was thought that the sea bed itself now held plenty of untapped veins of valuable mineral deposits that might dwarf those more easily available on land. Science reporter William J. Broad, author of The Universe Below: Discovering the Secret of the Deep Sea, writes that:

[T]he deep’s reservoirs of copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese, zinc, silver, and gold are thought to frequently dwarf deposits on land…Cobalt is used in the alloys for the high-temperature parts of jet engines and industrial gas turbines. Copper is the heart of all electrical wires. Nickel is vital for making stainless steel as well as coins, plating, and electronic circuits…All told, the sea’s inventory was estimated at trillions of tons, an astronomical sum that would take millenia of mining to start to consume. Some of the richest sites lay just off the United States.

Industrialized countries were grappling with both energy crisis and resource scarcity at the time of the late 1970s into the early 1980s, with the discovery of vast tracts of resources laying beneath the waves setting off alarm bells in Washington and elsewhere. Developing nations too were also keenly aware of the growing significance of the mining opportunities available off their shores and lobbied in what ways they could to protect them. The laws governing the open ocean are tricky and notoriously hard to enforce, even for powerful industrialized nations, thus giving developing nations growing reason to be wary of the exploitation of resources in their sovereign waters by hungry Western companies and nation-states.

The United Nations had passed treaties in the early 1960s related to securing an international law for the ocean and the seabed, but nothing all encompassing. With the growing exploration of the sea floor, there was more pressure to secure a rule of law for the ocean, international waters, and sovereign waters that was fair and equitable to countries both industrialized and developing. This eventually manifested in the Law of the Sea Treaty, negotiated in the 1970s, which called for fairer terms of trade and development financing for the developed and developing nations.

Broad writing again in The Universe Below on the negotiation of the treaty, describes the development as thus:

What developed in the 1970s was a rush of preparations for deep mining, both technical and political…[C]ompanies probed the deep with increasing vigor, gathering and smelting and analyzing. Very quickly this work got caught up in a noisy political clash the United Nations as poor countries assailed the rich ones. Seabed resources, the have-nots proclaimed in a phrase that would echo over the decades, were the “common heritage of mankind”. The aggrieved pushed for a Law of the Sea Treaty, which in theory would create an international legal framework for divvying up the deep riches. The work was to benefit all countries, in particular developing ones.

As the 1970s receded into the 1980s, however, the consensus for a fair legal framework for the sea floor gave way into the market mania of the latter decade, especially in the United States. With the Reagan administration taking office in 1981, the ideological Cold Warriors who populated the administration were determined to fight off the country’s dependency on foreign resources, which they viewed as unacceptable risk that weakened them in their battle with Moscow. The continuous energy crisis and oil embargoes that had rattled the nation during the previous decade spurred an ideological fervor for national self-sufficiency and the seeking out of new sources of resources, with the growing deep-sea mining mania looking incredibly attractive.

In the early 80s, the United States (and other Western nations) sprang into action to gobble up as many ocean floor claims as it could. Using and bending the rules of the United Nations international law set in the 1960s, the United States grabbed up claims using Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), which entitled a country to  explore, exploit, conserve, and manage natural resources no more than 200 nautical miles from the territorial sea baseline. The four immediate American claims were big enough to support mining for 20 years and encompassed an area bigger than Spain. Other Western countries rushed to follow suit and soon much of the Pacific in general was carved up by the U.S., European nations, and the U.S.S.R., usually overriding indigenous populations claims in the area. Broad writes that, “the world world’s dominant states quietly carved up enormous parts of the sea, often defying the U.N.” and that “the action bore some resemblance to the colonial partitioning of Africa and the New World centuries earlier”.

By the end of 1983, the United States had made away with EEZ claims to millions of square miles of sea floor, with nearly half of the claims at least one thousand miles from the mainland United States. Legally, the United States was said to have essentially doubled in size. The Reagan administration played an active role in negotiating the pending 1982 Treaty of the Sea, in order to have a hand in legally using and detailing the framework for the EEZs as it saw fit. Then, promptly as the treaty was being ratified by member nations in December of 1982, Reagan refused to sign. This threw a wrench into the treaty and its legitimacy itself; a particularly impressive villainous heel turn. Reagan denounced the treaty as redistributionist, with an Administration memo explaining that “the United States is deeply concerned about the grave dangers of legitimizing this socialist concept by signing the LOS Treaty”. The Reagan administration did, however, continue to hold the EEZ claims it had staked out during the negotiation of the treaty and encouraged American companies to mine the claims in accordance with United States law. The Reagan administration had pulled a skillful bait and switch, ensuring it would not have to recognize or be liable to claims by competing smaller, developing countries and indigenous populations. It then offered up a feast for the free market companies salivating to get a bite. The invisible hand of the market seemed poised and ready to touch a new frontier at the bottom of the ocean, just as it had a grip on everywhere else.

As the Reagan administration prepared to offer the first commercial leasing for deep-sea mining in one of its Exclusive Economic Zones, in an area known as Gorda Ridge off the coast of Oregon, environmentalists seized upon a government environmental impact study to launch the first shot of resistance in a war of conservation. The Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior announced the hefty potential environmental and social blowback, as described by Broad:

[D]eep mining (possibly including the use of explosives) might kill sea creatures, decimate shipwrecks, destroy hot-vent communities, rupture radioactive waste containers at two undersea dump sites, injure marine mammals, poison shellfish beds, mar coastal tourism, and even harm “Native Americans and unemployed persons in the coastal area” whose subsistence lifestyles centered on fishing.

On the defensive in response to environmental groups, as well as state and local governments who were upset at not being consulted in the original process, the Secretary of the Interior agreed to a hold on the leasing plan in Feburary of 1984. The Reagan administration later agreed to a joint military-scientific survey of the area in 1986 to determine environmental costs as well the feasibility of mining the area itself. Scientists came away not only being concerned about the environmental costs, but also with the feasibility to cost-effectively perform the sort of deep sea drilling via submersible or ships to reach the deposits.

Amidst growing overall concern for environmental and sustainable development topics nationally, growing research by academics contributed to the idea that the aftereffects of deep-sea mining would be powerful and averse.

Finally, falling metal and fuel prices in the mid-80s killed off the market interest in the underwater deposits, ensuring that the free-marketeers in the Reagan administration were undercut by the very forces they had made such overtures to. Increasing apathy by the private business interests, that had so hungrily pushed the Reagan administration earlier in the decade, and environmentalist push-back meant that the leasing out of Gorda Ridge stalled until 1989, when it was cancelled just before Reagan left office. Though the United States stranglehold on Exclusive Economic Zones remained and the country never signed the Law of the Sea Treaty,  the mania for deep sea mining subsided in the 1990s.

Still, years later, the old fights of years past have bubbled to the surface a bit. Decades after the deep-sea mining fever of the 1980s, conservative think-tanks and periodicals still rail against the United States’ commitment to the Law of the Sea Treaty. In 2012, a lingering specter of the Reagan administration, Edwin Meese, wrote an article against the treaty for the Heritage Foundation. In July of 2016, National Geographic published an article detailing renewed interest by companies in deep-sea mining, thanks to the development of technologies in the intervening years since the glory days of the mania. With Donald Trump taking office, environmentalists will be looking down an administration cut-throatly similar to the Reagan crew and all too happy to sell off ecologically delicate environments to the highest bidder. Already, the Trump administration is facing lawsuits by environmentalists attempting to tie his hands on promoting the issue:

On Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity announced it has settled a federal court lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce, in a move that will compel federal officials to conduct in-depth assessments of the risks to wildlife and underwater ecosystems before issuing permits for the exploration of the ocean floor for rare-earth metals and minerals.

We are facing down a reawakening of an issue that has been dormant for over thirty years. For the sake of the largest and least understood ecosystem on Earth, let’s hope we can stop another plundering of the deep.