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Uncertain Waters: Deep Sea Mining Faces Critical Turning Point

The pressure is on to decide how best to use – if at all – the unexplored deep that humans have decided is the common property for the good of all mankind

How minerals could be mined from the seabed. Photo: Naeblys/Alamy

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As the world was boiling, experiencing the hottest temperatures on record, a group representing most of the world’s governments gathered at the International Seabed Authority’s headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, to decide upon the future of the ocean in a critical way: can we mine the deepest stretches of the world’s oceans for metals needed for the green energy transition?

International meetings discussing deep sea mining – the extraction of minerals from the bottom of the ocean – had the world watching what could have been seen as the turning point for our oceans. However, discussions at the ISA – the little-known UN body in charge of managing deep sea resources in international waters – ended without (yet) giving the green light to an industry that is eager to mine the last untouched corner of our planet.

Since its establishment in 1994, the ISA has been tasked with preparing for the future of deep-sea mining by issuing contracts for exploration and developing the regulations that will govern how mining is to eventually take place. The regulations have been in development since 2014, but further work was paused during the pandemic. 

After five weeks of intense discussions and growing pressure from governments, NGOs, scientists and environmentalists against deep sea mining, at the most recent summit, the ISA concluded that the regulatory framework to start industrial-scale seabed mining is not ready yet. It has now set 2025 as the new deadline for developing mining rules. 

But can such a framework to regulate mining operations more than 4,000 meters deep – involving ambitious companies and geopolitically-averse countries in a race to profit from the resources supposed to benefit humankind – be developed at such short notice? The history of similar international treaties tells us that it is practically impossible.

The ISA already missed the first deadline for regulations, 9 July, and some delegate members already anticipate that the 2024 deadline is rather unrealistic since it is not binding either. Nevertheless, Michael Lodge, the ISA’s secretary, considers that “there’s an overall consensus that we need urgently or rather quickly rules, regulations and procedures to put the legal framework in place to remove any lingering uncertainty to make sure that things can go ahead in a good, organised way”.

Experts fear that a lack of scientific knowledge about the potential impact of deep sea mining on the oceans will push us to “sleepwalk into seabed mining”. 

Nevertheless, since the deadline for regulations was missed, mining companies can now apply for an ‘exploitation contract’ to be considered. this a goal that The Metals Company, the main firm pushing to mine the ocean, continues to pursue despite the setbacks. It recently announced that the company intends to submit an application for commercial mining after the ISA meeting next year.

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The Case for a ‘Moratorium’

It is not only the lack of regulations that put this industry in an unknown place – but also the potential for a moratorium, precautionary pause or even a ban, as more countries join the alliance of governments requesting that the ISA considers environmental concerns and other arguments against starting a new extractive industry, the consequences of which are still unknown.

After contentious discussions at the recent summit, it was agreed that a possible debate on moratorium should be added to the agenda of another meeting of the ISA in March 2024. Observers and environmentalists welcomed this, but recognise that the “fight is still on”.

“It is very important that the fight took place and went so long – it shows that real concern at the ISA is spreading,” said Duncan Currie, a lawyer and member of Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, one of the observers in the room during ISA meetings. 

However, the road to a moratorium has many layers. In fact, this is a term that does not exist in the legal framework that rules the ISA.

“People need to understand that the mandate of the ISA is to make seabed mining happen,” said one of the delegates. A mandate that is rather controversial. For some, it is also “outdated” or “not fit for purpose”.

“On the one hand, to regulate mining – on the other hand, to protect the marine environment. These two are reconcilable,” says Farah Obaidullah, an ocean advocate and founder of Women4Oceans about the ISA mandate.

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In that sense, Obaidullah considers that “the rules need to change given the reality we are in”. The ISA was developed at a time when we were not concerned with the type of crisis we are concerned about today: climate change, biodiversity, and pollution crisis,” she adds. 

“We need to think of the deep sea and how it would serve us in the future, in terms of our health and our survival.”

The ISA has granted more than 30 exploration contracts over the past 15 years to companies and countries on a quest to unleash the resources found in the deep sea – an area that covers about 54% of our world’s seabed (which was meant to be reserved for developing countries).  

The Common Heritage of (Hu)mankind

To understand the significance of the international discussions that have just concluded at the ISA, we have to go back decades – to the signing of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

At nearly 200 pages, the 1982 treaty is a massive international agreement formalising the customary laws that had governed how countries interacted with the ocean for hundreds of years. It deals with the critical question of where a nation’s sovereign borders end and the communal ‘deep sea’ begins. 

The exploitation of these resources “could mark the beginning of the end for man, and indeed for life as we know it. It could also be a unique opportunity to lay solid foundations for a peaceful and increasingly prosperous future for all peoples”, Maltese diplomat Arvid Pardo said in 1967 during a three-hour speech to the UN Assembly.

Pardo ended up coining the powerful phrase that runs throughout the UNCLOS that defines the deep seas as the “common heritage of mankind” – as opposed to the property of whoever is the fastest to reach it.

However, discussions on negotiations about our “common heritage” are far from inclusive.

Meetings were held in some cases out of sight, with multiple live-stream shutdowns where delegates met behind closed doors and the media was not allowed into the main room, after only being accredited for one week out of the three-week-long meeting. 

In fact, besides me – a freelancer reporter – there were only two other journalists in the room at the ISA, which has been criticised for a lack of transparency and an unseemly cosiness with business interests in handling negotiations for deep sea mining.

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A Battery in a Rock?

Commercial mining companies are banking on the appeal of what they say deep sea mining offers: a nearly limitless source of the minerals needed for powering the green energy transition and the transition to net zero economies, harvested from the ocean by technologically-advanced vessels, with the profits shared by all mankind. All this with a lighter environmental and human impact than land mining.

Metals can be found throughout the vast expanses of our oceans, but it is the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the central equatorial Pacific, between Hawaii and Mexico, that garners the greatest interest due to its exceptional potential for metal reserves. Encompassing approximately four million square kilometres, this area stands as the largest known deposit of these resources worldwide.

And resting at the deepest depths of the ocean – 4,000 to 6,000 meters below the surface in the cheerily-named ‘abyssal zone’ where no sunlight is able to penetrate – are so-called polymetallic nodules. These are small rocks with a mixture of metals that economic experts predict will be critical for the green transition: nickel, manganese, copper, cobalt, and, in some cases, traces of valuable rare earth metals like lithium and platinum.

Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

The potato-sized polymetallic nodules, with their convenient metal mixture and terrific distance from the surface, are the hardest to reach and potentially most valuable – what the president of The Metals Company, Gerard Barron, likes to call a “battery in a rock”.

The exploitation of mineral resources has underpinned the development of modern civilisation. But civilisation as we know it is not sustainable. The reality is that our modern society is faced with some very tough decisions to make. 

But the clock is ticking to decide on mining regulations, the 12 years we have to reduce emissions, the time before demand for metals potentially outweighs supply, and the time when major monetary investments expect a return.

Most of all, the pressure is on us to decide how best to use – if at all – the unexplored deep that humans have decided is our common property for the good of all mankind.

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