Science is outpacing policies for responsible resource extraction in space.
By Susanna Eayrs
Two Western Law professors have launched a research project into laws governing space mining.
The growing demand for non-renewable natural resources, such as minerals used in batteries, has brought increased attention to the potential of exploiting resources in space for use on Earth – and the laws that govern such activities need to keep pace.
The new project, spearheaded by Valerie Oosterveld and Elizabeth Steyn, will examine if international environmental law (IEL) can be employed to address gaps in the regulation of space mining.
Their project, “International environmental law and space resource extraction policy: Towards coherence”, is funded by a seed grant from Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration.
“Outer space law was developed in the 1960s through the 1980s, before the notion of large-scale space mining really became viable,” said Steyn. Since then, technology related to space exploration and prospecting has developed at breakneck speed, she said, pointing to Space X’s proposed Mars colonization system and plans by other organizations to mine asteroids.
Current laws are being significantly outpaced by science, said Steyn, which results in a “mismatch between the advanced science and the embryonic legal framework. Non-binding international documents have been introduced to fill the gaps, but we need to understand if this is sufficient.”
Oosterveld said space mining is poorly regulated right now, and that raises a key question: “While IEL has requirements governing responsible, sustainable mining on Earth, could these laws apply in space?”
The answers should inform international agreements governing resource extraction in space but this does not appear to be happening, she said.
Their aim is to draw up recommendations for how international space law on resource extraction can be understood in light of current international environmental law, and to formulate Canada-specific policy adaptations.
Oosterveld has also brought her space law expertise into the classroom. In January, she taught Western Law’s inaugural Outer Space Law course and introduced students to the core concepts in international and domestic law governing human activities in space.
“The primary goals of outer space law are to ensure a responsible approach to the exploration and use of outer space for the benefit and in the interests of humankind,” said Oosterveld. “It’s a fascinating area of the law.”
The students considered six leading-edge topics: international law and satellite use; the militarization and weaponization of space; the problem and management of human-caused space debris; asteroid-mining and other mining in space; space commercialization; and space colonization.