Permits for deep-sea mining may soon be forthcoming. What are they and what can happen?

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The sun rises over fishing boats in the Atlantic Ocean, September 8, 2022, near Kennebunkport, Maine. The United Nations body that regulates the ocean floor is preparing to resume negotiations in July 2023 that could open up the international sea floor to mining, including for materials vital to the green energy transition. Credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

The International Seabed Authority – the United Nations body that regulates the ocean floor – is preparing to resume negotiations that could open up the international seabed to mining, including materials critical to the green energy transition.

Years of negotiations are reaching a critical point where the authority should soon begin accepting applications for mining permits, compounding concerns about potential impacts on scarcely explored marine ecosystems and deep-sea habitats.

Here’s a look at what deep-sea mining is, why some companies and countries are applying for permits to do it, and why environmentalists are raising concerns.


Deep-sea mining involves removing mineral deposits and metals from the ocean’s seafloor. There are three types of such mining: removing deposit-rich polymetallic nodules from the ocean floor, mining huge sulfide deposits on the sea floor, and stripping cobalt crusts from bedrock.

These nodules, deposits and crusts contain materials, such as nickel, rare earths, cobalt and more, that are needed for batteries and other materials used in renewable energy tapping as well as everyday technology such as cell phones and computers.

Engineering and technology used for deep sea mining is still evolving. Some companies are trying to suck up materials from the seabed using huge pumps. Others are developing artificial intelligence-based technology that would teach deep-sea robots how to pick nodules from the floor. Some want to use advanced machines that can mine materials next to huge underwater mountains and volcanoes.

Businesses and governments view these as strategically important resources that will be needed as onshore reserves become depleted and demand continues to rise.


Countries manage their own sea area and exclusive economic zones, while the high seas and the international ocean floor are governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is deemed to apply to states whether they have signed or ratified it. Under the convention, the seabed and its mineral resources are considered the “common heritage of humanity” to be managed in a manner that protects the interests of humanity through the sharing of economic benefits, support for marine scientific research, and protection of the marine environment. environment.

Mining companies interested in deep-sea exploitation work with countries to help them get exploration permits.

More than 30 exploration permits have been issued to date, with activity primarily concentrated in an area called the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, which spans 4.5 million square miles between Hawaii and Mexico.

Coral on Moore Reef is visible in Gunggandji Sea Country off the coast of Queensland in eastern Australia on November 13, 2022. The United Nations body that regulates the ocean floor is preparing to resume negotiations in July 2023, which will see the could open up international seabeds for mining, including for materials vital to the transition to green energy. Conservationists worry that mining will damage ecosystems, especially without environmental protocols. Credit: AP Photo/Sam McNeil, File


A UN treaty clause requires the ISA to complete regulations for deep-sea exploitation by July 2023.

Countries and private companies can begin applying for provisional permits if the UN body fails to approve a set of rules and regulations before July 9. Experts say this will not be the case, as the process is likely to take several years.


Only a small portion of the deep-sea floor has been explored, and conservationists worry ecosystems will be damaged by mining, especially without environmental protocols.

Mining damage can include noise, vibration, and light pollution, as well as potential leaks and spills from fuels and other chemicals used in the mining process.

Sediment plumes from some mining processes are a major problem. After valuable materials have been extracted, silt plumes are sometimes pumped back into the sea. That can be harmful to filter-feeding species like corals and sponges, and can suffocate or otherwise bother some creatures.

The full extent of the implications for deep-sea ecosystems is unclear, but scientists have warned that biodiversity loss is inevitable and potentially irreversible.

“We’re finding new things all the time, and it’s a little premature to start mining the deep sea if we don’t really understand the biology, the environments, the ecosystems or whatever,” said Christopher Kelley, a biologist with research expertise in deep-sea ecology.


The ISA Legal and Technical Committee, which oversees the development of deep-sea mining regulations, will meet in early July to discuss the pending draft mining code.

Mining under the ISA regulations cannot begin until late 2024 or 2025 at the earliest. Applications for mining must be considered and environmental impact assessments carried out.

In the meantime, some companies, such as Google, Samsung, BMW and others, have supported the World Wildlife Fund’s call to pledge not to use minerals extracted from the planet’s oceans. More than a dozen countries — including France, Germany and several Pacific island nations — have officially called for a ban, pause or moratorium on deep-sea mining, at least until environmental protection measures are put in place, though it’s unclear how many other countries support such mining . Other countries, such as Norway, are proposing to open their waters to mining.

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