Deep-sea mining is fueling intense debate amid regulatory uncertainty

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN-backed organization charged with regulating exploration and mining activities on the ocean floor in international waters, is about to receive applications for commercial deep-sea mining licenses when the two-year period has been set for approval of a deep-sea mining code to expire on July 9.

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If no regulations are agreed before the deadline, private companies can apply for permits to mine parts of “the international seabed area”, the seabed and the ocean floor beyond the boundaries of national jurisdiction.

But despite the pending deadline, it remains unclear exactly how the ISA will review these applications and whether approval can be delayed once received.

Deep-sea mining has been the subject of intense debate in recent years due to the discovery of vast subsea mineral resources containing battery metals, such as copper, cobalt and nickel, which are in high demand in line with the global energy transition and rising battery capacity. production.

Most commercial interest in deep-sea mining has focused on polymetallic nodules, which are found on the surface of the ocean floor at depths of about 4,000 to 6,000 meters. These potato-sized mineral concentrations contain a combination of metals, including cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese, with estimated submarine reserves dwarfing those on land.

However, environmental groups and academic institutions warn that the areas earmarked for exploitation contain fragile ecosystems that will be irreparably damaged by undersea mining, resulting in permanent loss of biodiversity.

Code for deep sea mining

Since 2012, the 36-member ISA Council has been negotiating the adoption of a mining code that would allow commercial extraction of deep-sea minerals.

After circulating several draft versions of the mining code, the final regulations were due to be completed by the end of 2020, but were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In June 2021, the South Pacific island nation of Nauru and its sponsored entity Nauru Ocean Resources (NORI) activated a statutory clause notifying the ISA of plans to begin mining the ocean floor in the 74,830 km2 major exploration area of ​​the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ), a 4.5 million km2 mineral-rich seafloor region in the northeastern equatorial Pacific Ocean.

NORI is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian-registered company that has declared its intention to apply for an operating license later this year and begin extracting polymetallic nodules from the Pacific seafloor in 2024. initially intends to focus on its first project, NORI-D, which represents approximately 22% of the total resources in its two CCZ exploration areas.

The provision — known as the “two-year rule” — requires the ISA to allow mining to continue within two years, regardless of whether decision-makers have agreed on a final set of mining regulations.

Without a final version specifying the rules and procedures for prospecting, exploring and exploiting marine minerals from the seabed within this time frame, the ISA Board may be required to consider and provisionally approve applications for operating licenses.

However, it remains unclear what will happen when the deadline ends on July 9, 2023.

Scientist challenge

On June 8, the Science Advisory Council of the European Academies, a regional association of National Academies of science, announced its support for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, which would cause irreversible damage to marine ecosystems.

In its report, “Deep-Sea Mining: Assessing evidence on future needs and environment impacts,” EASAC challenged the claim that deep-sea mining is necessary to secure the critical minerals to support the global energy transition. While individual scientists have previously called for a moratorium, this is the first call from a major scientific panel.

“Deep-sea mining would not provide many of the critical materials needed for the green transition and other high-tech sectors,” said EASAC environmental director Michael Norton. “In addition, recycling rates can be vastly improved and future technological innovation is not sufficiently taken into account in the projections.”

ISA members divided

Another major issue is that member states within the ISA remain divided over the issue of deep-sea mining and the process for receiving applications.

Members of the ISA Council calling for a pause or moratorium on ocean floor mining include Palau, Fiji, Samoa, Micronesia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Spain, Germany, Finland, Panama and Chile. In November 2022, at the UN’s COP27 climate change conference in Egypt, French President Emanuel Macron called for a total ban on deep-sea mining.

At the ISA Council meeting in March 2023, Brazil, the Netherlands, Portugal, Singapore, Ecuador, Italy and Switzerland indicated that they would not approve mining contracts until there is sufficient environmental protection.

Portugal stressed that “the effects of deep-sea mining on biodiversity should be adequately investigated, the risks understood and the technology demonstrated that the environment would not be significantly harmed, in line with the precautionary principle.”

On June 26, Switzerland said its representatives on the ISA Council and Assembly will advocate a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the potential adverse effects are better understood and protection of the marine environment can be ensured.

Chile, elected to the council for a six-year term from 2021 to 2026, has proposed a 15-year break, while two other councilors – Britain and Norway – have argued that adoption of a mining code by July 2023 remains feasible.

Separately from the ISA, the Norwegian government recently announced plans to open part of its continental shelf to commercial deep-sea mining, leaving no doubt about its position on the practice.

With deep-sea miners preparing to submit license applications and the ISA has still not decided how these applications will be reviewed and decided, a meeting of the ISA Assembly in Kingston, which begins July 10, will be a pivotal moment in determining of the future of deep-sea mining and the prospects for the supply of critical minerals and the global energy transition.

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