In a major turnaround, President Bush announced Wednesday that the United States will drop its opposition to a 50-year ban on mining in Antarctica and sign an international accord to protect the pristine continent.
The agreement was hammered out during negotiations last month in Madrid. The United States was the only holdout as 38 nations announced that they would sign the accord.
Earlier, the United States had objected to a provision in the proposed mining protocol that would have required the unanimous approval of all 26 consultative members of the treaty--those with full voting rights--to lift the mining ban after 50 years. The mining protocol is to be added to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty
Instead, the compromise reached at Madrid calls for a three-fourths vote of treaty members to repeal the ban.
On Wednesday, by announcing that the United States would sign the accord, Bush cleared the way for its approval. A meeting will now be scheduled in Madrid to sign the protocol. In the United States, the Senate must ultimately approve the agreement.
During an appearance at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota Wednesday, Bush said that the mining compromise "addresses our concerns and provides effective protection for Antarctica without foreclosing options for future generations."
"The new environmental measures will protect native species of Antarctic flora and fauna and will place needed limits on tourism, waste disposal and marine pollution," the President said.
But the three-fourths vote required to lift the ban after 50 years has raised concern among some environmental groups.
"The walkout clause (three-fourths vote) would essentially allow any country to walk away from an international ban on mining," Bruce Manheim, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Associated Press.
Others, however, hailed the decision as a major step forward in protecting the 5.4-million-square-mile continent.
No mineral deposits have been discovered in Antarctica or its coastal areas. But growing world demand for new energy resources has raised concerns that pressures will mount for exploration and mining there.
Lee Kimball, director of the World Resources Institute's Antarctica program, called Bush's decision "great."
In a telephone interview from Washington, she said, "A lot of people worked over two years to get a solution to this mineral issue. I'm sorry that the walkout clause exists. It would have been better without it. But the whole of the protocol is a very good agreement on environmental protection . . . ."
The Bush Administration's initial decision to oppose the ban had drawn protests from around the world.
Earlier this week in Tokyo, legislators from the United States, Japan, the European Community and the Soviet Union sent Bush a letter urging him to support the mining protocol. Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), considered one of the Senate's leading authorities on global environmental issues, was among them.
Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke wrote Bush urging him to reconsider. Last week, New Zealand, which joined Australia and France in calling for a permanent ban, also urged Washington to review its stand.
In addition to the Environmental Defense Fund, several other environmental groups have called for still tougher restrictions. Greenpeace, for example, has urged that the continent be declared a world park.
A report last year by the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy research group, called for a moratorium on all minerals activities in Antarctica.
In that report, Kimball said that Antarctica "is too valuable to the health of the planet and our understanding of how the planet works to take a short-term approach to securing environmental protection and species conservation there."