As world leaders gather at the United Nations climate summit in Egypt this week, another international meeting is underway in Jamaica to decide the fate of the planet’s oceans.
The UN-affiliated International Seabed Authority is convening in Kingston to fast-track regulations that could allow the mining of fragile and biodiverse deep sea ecosystems for valuable metals as soon as 2024. But as the ISA Council, the organization’s policymaking body, concluded its first week of meetings on Friday, a growing number of countries were calling for a halt to the rush to enact mining regulations by July 2023, a deadline established last year.
Among the Council’s 36 member states, Germany, France, Spain, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Chile, Panama, Fiji and the Federated States of Micronesia last week demanded a “precautionary pause” or a moratorium on mining due to a lack of scientific data on the areas of the seabed targeted for exploitation. On Monday at COP27 in Egypt, French President Emmanuel Macron called for an outright ban on deep sea mining. Meanwhile, Brazil, the Netherlands, Portugal, Singapore, Switzerland and other Council members also indicated they would not approve any mining contracts until sufficient environmental protections for unique deep ocean ecosystems are in place, regardless of the July deadline.
Some nations, however, including the United Kingdom and Norway, expressed confidence that the regulations could be finalized by the deadline. China cautioned against focusing “single-handedly on only the protection of the environment.”
“Given the amount of work still before us…the likelihood that the regulations and standards and guidelines will be finalized by July 2023 is close to zero,” Ambassador Hugo Verbist, head of Belgium’s delegation, told the Council on Friday. “Uncertainty, especially legal uncertainty, is the last thing anyone needs as far as deep sea mining is concerned. The stakes for mankind are too high.”
Panama’s representative, Roger R. González, told the Council on Monday that his country “would not support any system that puts the protection of the marine environment on a second level.”
“We need to ensure future generations are not harmed,” he added. “We need to make decisions based on science and have a clear vision of our intergenerational responsibility.”
A comprehensive review of available research on areas of the deep ocean set for exploitation, published in March in the journal Marine Policy, concluded that a lack of scientific knowledge about those ecosystems precludes effective management of mining. The paper’s authors included prominent scientists and four members of the ISA committee that writes mining regulations.
Mining companies have argued that deep-sea mining will have less of an environmental impact than terrestrial mining and is necessary to provide the metals for electric car batteries and other green technologies needed to combat climate change.
Pradeep Singh, an ocean governance scholar at the University of Bremen in Germany who studies the ISA, said the organization’s charter requires the Council’s 36 member nations to reach a consensus for mining regulations to be approved. “The presence of one formal objection would result in a deadlock,” Singh said in an email. He’s attending the Council meeting as a representative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an accredited ISA observer.
The ISA, which includes 167 member nations and the European Union, was established in 1994 by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty to regulate mining in international waters while ensuring the protection of the marine environment. Over the past 21 years, the ISA has issued exploration contracts to state-backed enterprises, government agencies and private companies to prospect for minerals over more than 500 000 square miles of the seabed in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. Each mining contractor must be sponsored by an ISA member nation, which is responsible for ensuring compliance with environmental regulations.
The mounting resistance among ISA member nations to fast-tracking regulation comes as investigations by Bloomberg Green, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have revealed the closeness of the ISA Secretariat, the organization’s administrative arm, to the mining companies the Authority regulates and the influence some of those companies exert over small Pacific island nations that sponsor their contracts.
Until last year, the ISA Council had been slowly negotiating regulations that would allow mining to proceed. Then in June 2021, Nauru, a Pacific island nation with a population of 8,000, triggered a provision in the Law of the Sea treaty that requires the ISA to complete regulations within two years.
Nauru is a sponsor of a subsidiary of The Metals Company, a Canadian-registered company formerly known as DeepGreen that also holds mining contracts sponsored by two other small Pacific island nations. If the ISA does not approve regulations by July 2023, it may be required to provisionally approve The Metals Company’s application for a mining license under whatever environmental protections are in place at the time. Nauru triggered the two-year rule after The Metals Company told potential investors it expected to begin mining in 2024, according to US securities filings. The Metals Company’s shares closed at 85 cents on Friday.
The company recently completed a test-mining operation in a region of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. It sent a robot more than 10 000 feet (3 000 meters) below the sea to collect 3 600 metric tons of polymetallic nodules, potato-sized rocks rich in cobalt, nickel and other minerals. The nodules, which scientists estimate are habitat for half of the larger species in the CCZ, were transported through a riser to a surface ship.
At a July Council meeting, some nations objected to The Metals Company’s environmental-management plan for the test mining, with Germany saying it “included only rudimentary environmental data.” The plan was revised and ISA Secretary-General Michael Lodge informed the Mining Company that the mining could proceed.
The United States is not a member of the ISA, as it has not ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, but the country participates in the organization’s meetings as an observer. US delegate Gregory O’Brien told the Council on Friday that, “It is difficult to see how there would be measures in place to ensure effective protection for the marine environment from harmful effects” of mining by July 2023.
“The United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf are immediately adjacent to the Clarion Clipperton Zone,” he said. “A broad range of interests, including those of our indigenous communities that rely on an accessible and sustainable marine environment, have the potential to be directly impacted by negative impacts and effects from exploitation activities.”
France was even more dismissive of the 2023 deadline. “France does not consider the bound by any timeline, including the two-year rule,” Ambassador Olivier Guyonvarch told the Council. “No exploitation contract can be authorized by the Authority as long as the legal framework that sufficiently protects the environment will not be in place.”
In a phone interview from Jamaica, Matthew Gianni, a longtime ISA observer and a founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, said the past week made clear that a growing number of countries would not vote to approve any mining contracts after July 2023 without strong environmental regulations.
“It is becoming more and more obvious that states are going in a direction toward conservation and science,” said Gianni, whose Amsterdam-based alliance represents more than 100 environmental groups and other non-governmental organizations.