Bilder on the Legal Regime for Mining the Moon
Following-up on my recent post on commercial space ventures, I note that Richard Bilder has a new article posted to SSRN: A Legal Regime for the Mining of Helium-3 on the Moon: U.S. Policy Options. I know that “helium-3” might sound like the name of some sci-fi show like “Deep Space 9,” but it is really a great hope for future energy needs. Bilder’s abstract explains:
This article addresses questions of U.S. international legal and space policy arising from current proposals of the U.S., Russia, China and India to establish national bases on the Moon, in part with the purpose of mining and bringing to Earth Helium-3 (He-3). He-3 is an isotope of helium that is available in quantity only on the Moon and could, as an ideal fuel for nuclear fusion reactors, furnish humanity a virtually unlimited source of safe, non-polluting energy for centuries to come. For example, it is estimated that 40 tons of liquefied He-3 brought from the Moon to the Earth – about the amount that could comfortably fit in the cargo bays of two of the existing U.S. space shuttles – would provide sufficient fuel for He-3-based fusion reactors to meet the full electrical needs of the U.S. – or a quarter of the entire world’s electrical needs – for an entire year. However, there is as yet no international consensus on whether, or how, any nation or private enterprise can exploit or acquire title to He-3 or other lunar resources. The article calls attention to what may become a “race to the Moon” to obtain He-3 and discusses: (1) the technical and economic prospects for the development of He-3-based energy; (2) the present legal situation concerning the exploitation of lunar resources such as He-3; and (3) policy options for the U.S. regarding the establishment of an international legal regime capable of avoiding conflict in the exploitation of He-3 and other lunar resources and facilitating the broad scale development of He-3-based energy.
In addition to the idea of using helium-3 for power on earth it is also one of the most commonly posited potential fuel sources for crewed spacecraft to the asteroid belt and outer planets. This would open the belt up to the possibility of asteroid mining (if that turns out to be economically feasible) as well as crewed scientific exploration of the outer solar system. Bilder sets out various options including ratifying the present Moon Agreement, establishing an international lunar resource regime outside of the framework of the Moon Agreement, and setting up either an international organization or some other enterprise for mining lunar helium-3.
Underlying this is his argument that significant public or private investment in helium-3 mining would be predicated on a stable legal regime concerning the property and ownership issues of mined lunar resources. Thus, he argues, it is in the U.S.’s interest to take part in the construction of a lunar resource regime (be it treaty, international organization, or other policy option) sooner, rather than later.
For anyone interested in cutting edge issues in space law, this article is a great place to start.