LOST: Let’s Regulate Warp Drive While We’re at It.

In recent years, conservatives and libertarians have gone up in arms over the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST). CEI’s own take on it, from Doug Bandow, is found here. I am a bit torn over the treaty because a number of Navy friends, all of whom I like and respect, tell me that LOST really will make the seas a lot safer.

But, whatever the case, I’ve always had the most interest in the treaty provisions related to seabed mining operations. They’re silly and collectivist in any number of ways but, for me, that isn’t really even the point.

The real point, I think, is that we’re trying to write regulations for something we have no idea how to do. Regulations for warp drives, indeed, have about as much relevance as those on deep sea mining.

Getting up ANYTHING from the deep seabed is really, really hard. Let’s take the most successful treasure hunt of modern times, the recovery of the gold-laden Central America that Gary Kidner discusses in his excellent Ship of Gold in a Deep Blue Sea.

Lost in 1857 with 27 tons of California gold on board, the Central America was likely the greatest treasure ship in the Western Hemisphere. All told, the search for it cost about $12 million over 12 years (most of it spent in the first few) and returned about $150 million in gold. That’s a 23.5 percent yearly return which is obviously extraordinary but less than a good hedge fund manager gets in a good year. But the searchers were bringing up gold (one of the most valuable commodities on a per-ounce basis), had a good idea where to look, and didn’t have to remove any significant amount of soil from the site.

A real mining operation would have to take a stab (almost) in the dark, would have to dig, and would likely have to bring soil to the surface and dispose of it in order to get to minerals. We’re not close to developing the technology to do this in an economically viable way. In fact, we’re probably closer to mining operations on the moon and in the asteroid belt–both of which I expect to see in my lifetime–than we are to extracting minerals from the deep sea floor. It’s likely, indeed, that any energy breakthrough that made it possible to mine the sea floor efficiently would work even better in outer space.

So, even if the LOST mining provisions appeared very pro-market (and they don’t), I’d still be skeptical of them. We’re so far from being able to mine the sea floor that I don’t think it’s even worth thinking about and it certainly isn’t worth preemptively placing under a collectivist regime.