Hearing Raises Questions About Asteroid Mining Bill

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WASHINGTON — A bill that would grant property rights and other protections for commercial asteroid mining ventures received a mixed reception at a hearing of the U.S. House Science space subcommittee Sept. 10.

H.R. 5063, the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act, would grant U.S. companies the rights to resources they extract from asteroids. The bill would also allow companies to take legal action if they suffered “harmful interference” during those activities by other entities under U.S. jurisdiction.

At the hearing, though, one space law expert raised questions about the bill’s language. “My professional opinion is that the ASTEROIDS Act, as written, is very, very vague,” said Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita of space and remote sensing law at the University of Mississippi. “Strictly from reading the text, and based on legal knowledge, it definitely needs work.”

Gabrynowicz said she was concerned about the use of the term “harmful interference” in the bill. While the phrase is used in accords like the Outer Space Treaty, it refers to exploration activities by nations, not private entities. “Harmful interference has never been used that way in the treaties. It’s a completely novel application of that term of art,” she said. That, she said, could raise questions about what constituted such interference.

She added that international legal opinion is divided on whether an entity that extracts space resources then owns those resources, ownership that the bill would recognize. “What we are talking about is resource extraction, which is a very volatile and contentious issue at the international level,” she said. “There will be a great deal of political and legal discussion catalyzed by this.”

One key member suggested that because of those issues, the committee delay work on the bill until next year. “We could easily postpone our consideration” of the bill to carry out “additional, more in-depth explorations in the next Congress,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), ranking member of the space subcommittee.

The bill does have the backing of two companies with long-term plans to extract resources from asteroids. “We strongly support the bill,” wrote Chris Lewicki, president of Redmond, Washington-based Planetary Resources, in a letter to the subcommittee that Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) formally entered into the record at the hearing. “This legislation is timely, well constructed, and will help ensure that the United States will lead the development of this economically and strategically valuable new market.”

Houston-based Deep Space Industries also supported the bill in a separate letter provided to the committee, offering some suggestions to improve the bill. Those proposals include a definition of the bill’s use of the term “first in time” to determine which company would be able to claim freedom from harmful interference.

The company, though, was subtly critical that the hearing’s witnesses were primarily scientists, with no representatives from industry. “We suggest therefore that in the future the committee reach out into those communities more appropriate to this new realm of activity,” the company’s chairman, Rick Tumlinson, and general counsel, Sagi Kfir, wrote in their Sept. 9 letter to Palazzo.

Despite the concerns raised in the hearing, one of the bill’s co-sponsors pressed for near-term action on the bill. “If we wait for years to address the issue, the business is just going to go somewhere else,” said Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), who introduced the ASTEROIDS Act in July with Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.).

In a brief interview after the hearing, Posey acknowledged while the odds were against the bill becoming law this year, he would still seek to have the House Science Committee mark up the bill soon. “We’ll never answer all the unanswered questions that potentially come from any legislation on commercial space exploration,” he said. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”