As the International Seabed Authority begins accepting applications for deep-sea mining activities in the coming weeks, there will be sustained demand.
How much control will authorities have over operations to ensure the environmental protection of marine habitats far from coasts, or will it turn into a wild high seas where everyone is free?
The answer seems to be: the new High Seas Treaty is impotent.
Established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Seabed Authority regulates and monitors all mineral-related activities on the seabed in international waters and is currently negotiating a mining code to establish the rules under which companies may extract minerals from the seabed.
But the clock is ticking. The Authority has been forced to speed up finalization of the code after the small Pacific nation of Nauru activated a two-year rule to allow applications for seafloor mining from July 2023.
While commercial mining has not yet begun, companies like De Beers, China Minmetals Corporation, UK Seabed Resources Ltd and others from Tonga, Nauru, Germany, Japan and Singapore are lining up to make it a reality.
As a result, it is feared that environmental protections for international waters will be overruled by these companies hoping to exploit one of the planet’s last frontiers for mining.
Deep sea mining for metals such as cobalt, manganese and nickel could potentially support the mass production of essential electronics such as smartphones and tablets and drive the development of green technology such as electric vehicles and wind turbines.
As the world became aware of the looming impact of deep-sea mining and how it could affect the marine environment, in March this year the world achieved what could well be a turning point in ocean protection: the adoption of the Full Sea treaty.
Without such a treaty, the high seas and deep seabed outside national jurisdictions were governed and managed in a fragmented manner for decades.
The Convention, which took two decades to complete and will not be signed until later in 2023, seeks to change this by establishing a new framework for the conservation of marine resources with new management tools and institutional mechanisms for decision-making and equitable benefit-sharing.
But the treaty does not have any power over mining activities overseen by the International Seabed Authority because it does not directly apply to activities already regulated by existing bodies.
There are no guarantees that the High Seas Convention could even provide environmental protection, despite its clauses permitting the creation of marine protected areas outside national jurisdictions. It also remains to be seen how nations could work together to establish marine protected areas outside national jurisdictions.
In other words, the High Seas Treaty would not hinder or hinder deep-sea mine exploration and mining activities.
It only prepares the world with an institutionalized and coordinated protection measure with no clear provisions to hinder mining. The International Seabed Authority can issue permits without much hindrance to companies that want to explore the deep sea.
Not only that, there are no guarantees that the High Seas Convention could even provide environmental protection, despite clauses in it allowing for the creation of marine protected areas outside national jurisdictions.
It also remains to be seen how nations could work together to establish marine protected areas outside national jurisdictions.
Proposals would first have to be submitted by participating countries to the International Maritime Organization, supported by a draft management plan indicating whether or not activities such as fishing, shipping and deep-sea mining would be restricted within the proposed designated area.
Such proposals are likely to meet resistance, resulting in years of delay before designation of marine protected areas in the international high seas or seabed can be realized.
Meanwhile, the regulations allow countries to apply to the International Seabed Authority for 15 years of exclusive rights to explore a specific area for deep-sea mining.
To receive such contracts, they must submit work plans showing that the contractors they send for explorations have the financial and technical capabilities to meet their obligations.
It is an expensive undertaking, costing up to $1.4 billion over five years. A 2017 UNESCO report stated that ocean research vessels can cost between $10,000 and $40,000 per day to operate. The expected total cost of processing the minerals is estimated to be approximately USD $135 million.
Contractors are expected to follow best environmental practices and work closely with the Authority to devise programs to monitor and evaluate the biodiversity impacts of their exploration and mining activities.
Since explorations of the seabed are now underway, but mining has yet to begin, contractors, scientists, legal experts and the Authority must continuously work together to monitor environmental impacts.
With more scientific data, Member States covered by the High Seas Convention could then find the most sustainable way to balance mining activities with the protection of the marine environment.
Dr Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli is an associate professor in the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia, and a former research fellow at the Australian National University, Canberra. He declares no conflict of interest.
Originally published under Creative Commons Through 360info™.