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: extracting deposit-rich polymetallic nodules from the ocean floor, extracting huge sulfide deposits from 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.
HOW IS DEEP SEA MINING REGULATED NOW?
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.
WHY IS THE PRESSURE ON THE ISA TO ADOPTE REGULATIONS NOW?
In 2021, the Pacific island nation of Nauru—in partnership with mining company Nauru Ocean Resources Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Canada-based The Metals Company—applied to the ISA to mine minerals in a specified deep-sea region.
That led to a clause in the UN treaty requiring the ISA to finalize deep-sea exploitation rules by July 2023. If there are no regulations, Nauru can apply to carry out mining without any regulations.
Other countries and private companies may begin applying for provisional permits if the UN body fails to pass a set of rules and regulations by July 9. Experts say this will not be the case, as the process is likely to take several years.
WHAT ARE THE ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS?
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’s 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 2026 at the earliest. Applications for mining must be considered and environmental impact assessments must be carried out.
In the meantime, some companies — such as Google, Samsung, BMW and others — have backed 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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