Faculty of
Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology

11 February 2021

There has been little public conversation surrounding an off-world mining social licence. Image: SpaceX

The opportunity to venture into off-world mining and find new sources of energy in space has been lauded as a new era for human development by the scientific community, but University of Queensland chemical engineering PhD candidate Elliot Clarke (pictured) is asking how the benefits of this vast emerging industry can be distributed equitably across the globe. 

“Mining activity on the Moon, asteroids and Mars is growing, and the delivery of logistics to support this activity will continue to grow and generate significant economic returns for those who invest in it,” said Mr Clarke.

“On Earth, the mining sector is expected to earn a social licence to operate (SLO) to legitimise their activities, gaining approval from the general public to carry on digging, scraping or extracting.

Moon

“Little is being said about how SLO would work for mining in space to ensure social, economic and environmental accountability into the future.”

Mr Clarke investigates the role of citizens and social licence in the rapidly developing space industries:

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently claimed the first individual to colonise mining and energy capture would become the planet’s first trillionaire, and the Elon Musk-led SpaceX, as a private company, has already directed its efforts towards these goals.

But who should really benefit from this anticipated tsunami of wealth? Will the public get to have a say in how these activities are regulated and managed to ensure fair and just outcomes for those of us back on Earth?

Citizens outside ‘developed countries’ without established space agencies or the economic growth to support emerging industries are already regularly excluded from decision making, driving the wedge of inequity deeper.

Concerns of social, economic and environmental accountability don’t disappear simply because UFO and alien colonies won’t be displaced. 

As a global community, we have a crucial role to play in how these technologies are implemented and legitimised.

What is an SLO within off-world scope?

How the public view these projects is critical. Without a social licence, questionable developments face opposition from local communities. However, in space, an SLO is no longer solely tied to a single location and can be applied to much vaster spatial dimensions. 

Local communities are no longer the only actors taking interest in how new technologies and developments are received, with widespread public opposition to energy and mining developments gaining support across Australia and around the world.

Very soon this scope will extend to the solar system. 

Researchers have developed SLO models that can help us to make good decisions as we tackle this issue:

Sharing the wealth

The equitable distribution of wealth to the public plays a crucial role in how a social licence is developed. Multi-national resource companies are often required to give back to communities. As SpaceX begins to colonise Mars, it’s unlikely there will be Martians there who require compensation for the acquisition of their land, so these profits will be redirected back to Earth. 

After all, if space doesn’t belong to anyone, how can the profits belong to a select few? 

With a surge in private enterprises engaging in space activity we risk having monetary benefits isolated from those who need it most.

Some researchers have suggested a new international body be developed to mandate a royalty distribution whereby citizens receive dividends.

Another alternative is public commons ownership over these assets on the Moon, Mars or asteroids. This would similarly provide a return, however the difference in citizenry ownership could provide a deeper sense of engagement strengthening a space based SLO. This model has already shown promise in wind farm developments and would also lead to citizens having a voice in decisions.

Moon

Ensuring fair wealth distribution from mining in space will be key for social acceptance.

Making sure everyone’s voices are heard

Another key area of concern for the development and maintenance of an SLO in space is the inclusiveness of the public in decision making. On Earth, this is already problematic. Who gets to decide who is included in how these choices are made? What voices are heard in a proposed mining or energy development and why are others excluded?

How this plays out in public perceptions of off-world mining becomes increasingly complex. How will SpaceX, Blue Origin or others provide a feedback platform for their developments in how they operate their business models? There needs to be deliberative processes that can be applied to ensure these operations involve key stakeholders outside the scope of industry. 

Currently, deliberative processes through citizen panels show promise in building public trust and knowledge co-creation in climate change matters. This could be applied to allow citizens to actively participate in the decision-making process for Moon-based mining developments.

Underscoring SLO issues of inclusion is a matter of legitimacy. Public deliberation - and public deliberation early - will be critical in developing legitimacy for space-based resource extraction. The longer open public deliberation is delayed, the more risk there is of a breakdown in public trust.

Trust in the regulators

We know that public perception of governments and regulators is key in a social licence for mining and energy developments. 

There is currently a total absence of regulatory bodies charged with moderating off-world mining and other space activity, and this will become a problem if that doesn’t change. 

So, how does the public manage a vacuum in regulation when they determine the risks and benefits of space operations to their life more broadly? There needs to be a comprehensive and inclusive global discussion that explores a space-based SLO in some form, within either existing or new institutional frameworks. 

Without trust in regulatory oversight, an off-world mining social licence would vanish before it could get started. 

As a global community, we have a responsibility to ensure inequality doesn’t go unchecked alongside technological advances - including those futuristic science fiction ideas that are now becoming a reality.

Elliot Clarke is a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland researching public attitude formation towards hydrogen energy and other future fuels through citizen deliberation.

Image credits: SpaceX, NASA