US blocks use of mapping system in China
The Australian mining company BHP Billiton said Friday that the United States Defense Department was blocking it from using an advanced mapping technology to search for mineral deposits in China.
BHP Billiton has a license to use the so-called Falcon system, which was originally intended for use on United States nuclear submarines. BHP Billiton has been using the system around the world since 1999 to help find underground deposits of minerals from aluminum to zinc, according to a New York Times report.
But in a meeting this week with analysts in Australia, the head of BHP Billiton's business in China, Clinton Dines, said plans to use Falcon technology in China had been rejected by the United States Navy, according to a report published in The Australian, which was confirmed Friday by BHP Billiton in Melbourne.
Under the terms of BHP Billiton's license to use Falcon, a spokeswoman for the company said, "They can dictate where we can and can't use it."
A Pentagon spokeswoman in Washington, Lt. Col. Tracy O'Grady-Walsh, said Friday that the Falcon system was on a list of American munitions banned from export to China without a presidential waiver.
The disclosure that Washington is seeking to block the export of geological survey technology to China comes as the United States is seeking to prevent Europe from lifting an arms embargo against China - something Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany vowed anew on Thursday to do.
China is in the midst of an aggressive drive to secure raw materials for its fast-growing economy, including copper, iron ore and oil. And China's hunger for raw materials has also made it increasingly important to BHP Billiton. Sales to China account for 10 percent of BHP Billiton's total revenue.
The Falcon technology was designed by Lockheed Martin as a navigation system for United States submarines to avoid undersea mountains. In the late 1980s, it was adapted for use by aircraft and used by the United States Air Force, reportedly to search for nuclear warheads.
In the early 1990s, this system, called an airborne gravity gradiometer, was identified by BHP, which merged with the British company Billiton in 2001, as having potential uses for mining. By 1999, it had secured an exclusive license to use the system for exploration. The license for oil and gas exploration expires in October 2009, while a separate license for mineral exploration lapses in April 2010.
When the company introduced the system in 2000, one BHP Billiton executive called Falcon "the holy grail of the exploration industry," enabling it to survey previously inaccessible areas.
The system, weighing about 1,000 pounds, is loaded onto light aircraft and flown over prospective mining areas. It produces colored maps indicating changes in the earth's density that can give geologists clues to the whereabouts of valuable ore bodies.