The House will debate this week a bill endorsed by the Carter administration that would allow mining companies to explore for minerals on the floor of the sea.
The bill would set up regulatory procedures for companies seeking federal licenses to mine the Atlantic and Pacific seabeds, both of which have already been prospected by at least four mining consortia. Federal officials expect that if Congress passes the legislation vessels will begin exploring for minerals near Hawaii before the year is out.
It's a substantial technological achievement to retrieve minerals from the ocean and we're ready to do it," Richard Frank, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an interview. "This is a good use of the oceans and I think we ought to foster it."
Four consortia planning to apply for seabed permits are Ocean Mining Inc. Kennocott Copper Co., Lockheed Corp. and Deepsea Ventures Inc. All four own or lease ships that are being fitted with machinery able to vacuum the sea floor for the metallic nodules that lie either on the seabed or just beneath it.
"What they retrieve are nodules lying on top of the bottom," Frank said, "just like clams and oysters."
The four mining groups have invested an estimated $150 million in their ships and machinery. Prospecting began as early as 1970, when technology for mining the floor of the sea was first developed.
Frank said that nodules containing manganese, cobalt, nickel and copper have been found in vast areas of the Atlantic and Pacific, but that the Pacific would probably be mined first because its nodules contain more copper and nickel.
"The Atlantic nodules have a very low nickel and copper content," Frank said, "and the economics of this industry will probably be based on the nickel and the copper."
No urgent need exists for any of the four minerals at this time, but they account for an estimated $1 billion U.S.balance-of-trade deficit. All four are imported from Africa and South America.
"The deficits can only increase as time goes on," Frank said. "And there's some question about the reliability of the source countries."