White House space resources order gets mixed response

United Launch Alliance moon mining concept. Credit: United Launch Alliance.

On April 6, 2020 US President Donald Trump signed an executive order effectively stating that US companies can exploit space resources.

Opposition to US space resources Policy

The public response in Canada was muted until recently when a group of academics and former government public servants penned a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne objecting to the new US policy.

The White House executive order reads in part that “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law. Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons. Accordingly, it shall be the policy of the United States to encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law.”

The group opposing the US policy held a virtual workshop on the topic that included over 27 participants. A partial list of participants was included in the groups recommendations. The letter the group sent to Minister Champagne was signed by seven members, all of whom have contributed to Canada’s space efforts over the years. They include;

  • Aaron Boley, Canada Research Chair in Planetary Astronomy, University of British Columbia, and Co-Director, Outer Space Institute
  • Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law, University of British Columbia, and Co-Director, Outer Space Institute
  • William (Mac) Evans, former President, Canadian Space Agency, and former Chief-of-Staff to the Minister of National Defence
  • Ram S. Jakhu, Institute of Air and Space Law, Faculty of Law, McGill University
  • David Kendall, former Chair, United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and former Director General of Space Science and Technology, Canadian Space Agency
  • Paul Meyer, Adjunct Professor of International Studies and Fellow in International Security, Simon Fraser University, and former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament
  • Marie Lucy Stojak, Executive-Director of Mosaic-Creativity & Innovation Hub, HEC Montréal

The Vancouver Workshop not only produced the letter, but also a long list of recommendations. The full letter and recommendations are available below.

The letter in part states “the Executive Order acknowledges uncertainty concerning the legal right to recover and use space resources, including whether it extends to commercial recovery and use. This situation of uncertainty has led to several years of deliberations amongst space-faring states, principally at the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.”

“There has, however, been a long-standing consensus among states that the recovery and use of space resources should be governed by an international agreement, as has been done in other ‘areas beyond national jurisdiction’ where resources are recognized as constituting ‘global commons’, for example the deep seabed, international airspace, and the radio frequency spectrum.”

The letter further states that “at the heart of the Vancouver Recommendations on Space Mining is a rejection of any unilateral approach based on the adoption of national legislation.”

Neptec rover.
Credit: Neptec.

Not everyone supports the Vancouver Workshop group recommendations

Not everyone sees the US space resources policy in a negative light.

Dale Boucher is the CEO of Deltion Innovations, a company that has for years worked in the mining sector including developing space mining technologies and advocating for this segment of the space sector. He’s also been a key organizer in the annual Planetary & Terrestrial Mining Sciences Symposium (PTMSS) and Space Resources Roundtable.

He had no idea the Vancouver workshop had been held until SpaceQ brought it to his attention. In his own letter (available below) to Minister Champagne in response to the Vancouver Workshop letter he states:

“The letter claims to speak for the space industry and the mining industry in Canada, yet none of the signatories identified in either the letter or the Vancouver document are industrial representatives for those sectors. In fact, of the 27 delegates listed in the ‘Vancouver Recommendations’ all are academics except for 5 from ‘other’ sectors. Of the 7 signatories to the ‘Open Letter’ none are from the mining sector. Without adequate representation of these sectors there can be no claim of knowledge of what would constitute the ‘…interests of the Canadian space and mining industries.’ I am not aware of any survey or other public outreach that may have addressed this question. Speaking as both a mining sector and aerospace sector entrepreneur, neither of the two groups signatory to the documents represent my views on the issue.”

In fact, it is the attached recommendations to the letter that states that industry was represented. However, no one from industry was listed in the partial list provided by the Vancouver Workshop.

The letter is not all negative on the Vancouver Workshop letter stating “while I agree that a regulatory framework is a good idea, I point out that the UNCLOS (Open Letter that the Law of the Sea) required significant time and resources to negotiate, effectively stalling any developments of the seabed. It makes sense for the global players in ISRU, a select group to which Canada does not yet belong, to develop a set of standards that would aid and support space mining, as opposed to suppressing it. These standards will have a key role in ensuring that space mining activities are accessible to all states willing to engage in these activities, while also protecting the interest of individual organizations (government or private) to ensure a continuous flow of financial and human capital, as well as continuous innovation. In addition, such standards must be built to ensure the protection of our planet and its nearby satellites. However, it is possible to develop these standards incrementally, as the technology continues to evolve.”

There’s time to get this right

The Globe and Mail contacted Minister Champagne’s office and spokesperson said “we have long held that the peaceful use of space and space exploration should be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries. For that reason, we will continue to work with the U.S. and other international partners on the issue of the use of space resources on a bilateral basis as well as through relevant multilateral bodies.”

Space mining is now part of the governments agenda, though only in its very initial phase. In 2018, Natural Resources Canada unveiled the Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan (CMMP) which included space mining as something we should be planning for down the road by getting new policy’s in place now.

The Vancouver Workshop group continued a long tradition in Canada by academics and policy experts who work towards building international frameworks and consensus on difficult issues. And the use of outer space is a difficult issue. They should be commended for their efforts. However, it would seem that their efforts would go further if it included more input from industry as they have a role to play, including being the chief technology innovators who will make the recovery and use of space resources a reality.

Group Letter – Re: US Executive Order on Recovery and Use of Space Resources


Vancouver Recommendations on Space Mining


Dale Boucher Letter – Re: US Executive Order on Recovery and Use of Space Resources


About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

One comment

  1. Kieran_A_Carroll

    Marc — thanks for making this info available. I wish I’d heard about this event before it was held, it would have been interesting to attend. Your summary of the event, the communique it produced and Dale’s response help make up for my having missed it.

    I’ve attended numerous conference sessions on space law/space resources in recent years (and organized one such at CASI Astro), as well as being a technical advisor to the recent ”
    Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group.” It seems clear to me that opinion is split between those who broadly agree with the global-commons principles embodied in the Moon Treaty, and those who fundamentally disagree with those. The Vancouver Workshop findings are clearly supportive of the former — perhaps reflecting the specific mix of people who ended up attending that event. Whereas Dale’s open letter pretty well reflects the current thinking of the latter.”

    Both the Workshop communique and Dale’s letter raise numerous points — too many to respond to in this Comments section! But I’ll add in my $0.02 worth on a couple of them.

    – The Vancouver Recommendations consider unilateral legislation on the topic of space resources to be “inadequate,” and recommend multilateral negotiations on an international regime for space mining. This recommendation seems oblivious to the fact that such multilateral negotiations have been tried repeatedly since the 1970s, and have failed to produce a consensus (the only way in which multilateral negotiating bodies such as COPUOS are able to make decisions). To advocates to space mining, it seems clear that multilateral negotiations, on their own, will *never* result in any progress towards agreement on an international regime — that there has been a 50-year-long “logjam” holding up progress on this topic, caused by the limitations of the multilateral international process.

    – The recent US Space Policy and Executive Order on this topic, suggest a way to break up this logjam: by encouraging like-minded countries to adopt similar, coordinated unilateral policies and laws on the topic of Space Resources, a basis can be formed for eventually coalescing those into a multilateral agreement between those countries (e.g., with each country agreeing to respect the mining claims of the other countries that have passed consistent laws). Once a critical mass of countries join such a multilateral group, then perhaps the time would come where consensus-based groups such as COPUOS could add value, by encouraging all other countries to join in. This idea was widely discussed when the US Administration released their Space Policy Directive on this topic 3 years ago; it is disappointing that the Vancouver Workshop findings don’t discuss that at all.

    – While the idea that this American leadership approach might trigger this logjam-busting result was greeted by many with skepticism at first (undoubtedly fueled at least in part by the repugnance many outside the USA hold towards American policies in general), it has gained credence by Luxembourg’s decision to follow suit, with the UAE later considering the same. Some of us have been suggesting that it would be in Canada’s best interest to do so as well, as Dale’s letter makes clear.

    – Amongst the Vancouver Workshop recommendations is that the “establishment of a mandatory benefits sharing mechanism” be encouraged. Of course, the inclusion of such a mechanism in the Moon Treaty is one of the main reasons that the USA, and many other countries, decided against ratifying that treaty. The reasons for doing so were in the 1970s rooted in the ideological conflict between the “Free World” and the “Communist Bloc,” with that “enforced sharing” approach clearly aligning with the ideology of the latter, and sticking in the craw of the former. It seems strange to me that the Vancouver Workshop attendees seem blind to the fact that this recommendation is a powerful obstacle to achieving any sort of an international consensus.

    – In modern times, the issue is that states will never put up the capital to finance the development of space-mining enterprises, but private enterprise might — such an “international benefits-sharing tax” on such enterprises would represent another headwind that would make it even harder to raise the capital to finance what are already very risky business propositions.

    – Over the past couple of years I have been suggesting the following simple approach to benefits-sharing from any successful space-mining enterprise: encourage countries throughout the world to invest in space-mining private companies, by buying shares in them. Then, if and when those companies turn a profit, the investing countries would get to share in the profits. (Capitalism 101, of course.) Even the smallest developing nations could afford to invest *some* amount towards this sort of thing.

    – Of course, what if a small, developing nation invests in a risky space-mining venture, only to have it fail, and never return a profit? (Always a risk in any capitalist venture.) This suggests to me several potentially positive, helpful roles for international, multilateral cooperation. For example, a “venture capital mutual fund” could be set up, into which all countries would be welcome to invest, which would invest in *many* space-mining ventures, to spread the risk of losses (and the potential for gains). This would create a much-needed pool of capital for space-mining startups to apply to — they wouldn’t *have* to do so (if they can raise sufficient capital elsewhere), but it’d be very tempting to access those funds. Perhaps an international agreement could be put in place to encourage local governments to encourage *all* space-mining ventures within their jurisdiction to allow this fund to purchase some amount of their shares (up to 10%, say), whenever shares are being sold.

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