Resuming negotiations for deep-sea mining permits raises concerns about the potential impacts on marine ecosystems in the deep sea, which are relatively poorly researched.
The International Seabed Authority, a United Nations body that regulates the ocean floor, is considering opening up the international seabed for mining, including for minerals essential for the green energy transition.
Deep-sea mining involves extracting valuable minerals from the ocean floor at great depths. Companies and countries are applying for mining permits in order to access these resources. The minerals targeted include those critical for renewable energy technologies, such as copper, nickel, cobalt, and manganese.
However, environmental activists are expressing serious concerns about the potential consequences of deep-sea mining. The deep-sea ecosystems are fragile and largely unexplored, making it difficult to predict the full extent of the impacts.
There are worries about the destruction of habitats, disruption of marine ecosystems, and potential negative effects on biodiversity.
Additionally, deep-sea mining could release sediment plumes and other harmful substances into the water, impacting marine life. The long-term impacts on deep-sea ecosystems and their ability to recover from disturbance are not well-understood.
The resumption of negotiations and the acceptance of mining permit applications add to these concerns.
Balancing the desire for access to valuable minerals and the need to protect marine ecosystems is a significant challenge that requires careful consideration and research to minimize potential harm.
WHAT IS DEEP SEA MINING?
Deep-sea mining involves the extraction of mineral deposits and metals from the seabed, including polymetallic nodules, massive sulfide deposits, and cobalt crusts. These deposits contain valuable materials like nickel, cobalt, rare earths, and more, which are essential for various technologies including batteries for renewable energy storage, cell phones, and computers.
The engineering and technology used in deep-sea mining are still developing. Some companies are exploring the use of large pumps to vacuum materials from the seafloor, while others are advancing artificial intelligence-based technology to teach robots how to extract nodules.
Advanced machines are also being developed to mine materials from the sides of underwater mountains and volcanoes.
Many companies and governments see deep-sea mining as strategically important for future resource supply, especially as onshore reserves are being depleted and demand for these materials continues to grow.
These seabed resources are viewed as crucial for sustaining renewable energy technologies and supporting the development of everyday technology. However, concerns remain over the potential environmental impacts and the long-term sustainability of deep-sea mining activities.
HOW IS DEEP SEA MINING REGULATED NOW?
Deep sea mining is currently regulated through a combination of international treaties and agreements. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the primary legal framework governing activities in the high seas and the international seabed beyond national jurisdiction.
UNCLOS provides guidelines and regulations for the exploration and exploitation of seabed mineral resources.
Under UNCLOS, the international seabed and its mineral resources are considered the “common heritage of mankind.” This means that the resources should be managed in a way that ensures the equitable sharing of economic benefits and protects the interests of humanity while supporting marine scientific research and preserving marine environments.
To engage in deep-sea mining, mining companies must obtain exploration licenses. These licenses are typically issued by countries in partnership with the mining companies.
Currently, more than 30 exploration licenses have been issued, with most of the activity concentrated in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, an area spanning 1.7 million square miles (4.5 million square kilometers) between Hawaii and Mexico.
The regulation of deep-sea mining is an ongoing process, as technologies evolve and potential environmental impacts are better understood.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA) plays a crucial role in regulating deep-sea mining activities and ensuring compliance with international standards and regulations. It is responsible for granting mining licenses and overseeing the exploration and exploitation of seabed mineral resources in international waters.
The ISA is also working on developing comprehensive environmental regulations to minimize environmental impacts and protect marine ecosystems during deep-sea mining operations.
WHY IS THERE PRESSURE ON THE ISA TO ESTABLISH REGULATIONS NOW?
In 2021, Nauru, in partnership with Nauru Ocean Resources Inc., applied to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to exploit minerals in a specific deep-sea area. This application has triggered a clause in the United Nations treaty, which mandates the ISA to complete regulations governing deep-sea exploitation by July 2023.
According to the clause, if the ISA fails to finalize these regulations by the deadline, Nauru would have the option to submit an application to conduct deep-sea mining without any specific governing regulations in place. This raises concerns among environmental activists and scientists who argue that without robust regulations in place, deep-sea mining could proceed without adequate safeguards for the marine environment and ecosystems.
The deadline for the completion of regulations has added urgency to ongoing discussions and negotiations within the ISA regarding the proper management and oversight of deep-sea mining activities. It highlights the need for the international community to establish comprehensive and effective regulations to guide deep-sea mining operations and ensure responsible and sustainable practices in this emerging industry.
If the International Seabed Authority (ISA) fails to approve a set of rules and regulations for deep-sea mining by the July 9 deadline, other countries and private companies will have the opportunity to start applying for provisional licenses. This means that, in the absence of finalized regulations, interested parties could potentially move forward with deep-sea mining activities.
However, experts believe that it is unlikely for the ISA to approve a complete set of regulations by the deadline, as the process is expected to take several years. The complexity of deep-sea mining, coupled with the need to carefully consider environmental and social impacts, requires extensive research, consultation, and deliberation.
The potential for provisional licenses raises concerns about the lack of comprehensive regulations and oversight for deep-sea mining operations.
Without proper guidelines, there is a risk of inadequate protection for marine ecosystems and potential negative impacts on biodiversity. It underscores the importance of ensuring that thorough regulations are developed and implemented before any significant deep-sea mining activities proceed.
The extended timeline for the finalization of regulations provides an opportunity for further discussion, research, and public engagement to ensure that the interests of both resource exploitation and environmental protection are properly balanced.
WHAT ARE THE ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS?
Conservationists are raising concerns about the potential damage to deep-sea ecosystems caused by mining, especially in the absence of robust environmental protocols. Currently, only a small portion of the deep seabed has been explored, and the full extent of the implications for these delicate ecosystems is still unclear.
Mining activities can potentially result in various forms of pollution and disturbance. This includes noise, vibration, and light pollution, as well as the potential for leaks and spills of fuels and chemicals used in the mining process.
Sediment plumes, created when materials are extracted and pumped back into the sea, are particularly worrisome. These plumes can harm filter-feeding species like corals and sponges, and may smother or disrupt the habitats of other creatures.
Scientists have cautioned that biodiversity loss in the deep sea is likely to occur and could be irreversible. The unique and fragile ecosystems found in the deep sea are often slow to recover from disturbances, raising concerns about the long-term impacts of mining operations.
Given the limited understanding of deep-sea ecosystems and their vulnerability to disturbance, it is crucial to establish robust environmental protocols and regulations before allowing large-scale mining activities to proceed. This will help ensure that proper safeguards are in place to protect marine biodiversity and minimize potential harm to these valuable and irreplaceable ecosystems.
“We have to be cautious and exercise restraint before diving into deep sea mining. It is essential to gain a thorough understanding of the biology, environments, and ecosystems of these unexplored areas.
Discoveries are still being made, so it is premature to start extracting resources without a comprehensive knowledge base,” warned Christopher Kelley, a biologist specializing in deep sea ecology.
The ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission will convene in early July to discuss the draft of the mining code. The development of deep-sea mining regulations is an ongoing process, and these meetings play a crucial role in shaping the future of the industry.
Mining under ISA regulations is not expected to begin until 2026 at the earliest. This timeline allows for a thorough consideration of mining applications and the completion of comprehensive environmental impact assessments. These assessments are essential for evaluating and mitigating potential harms to deep-sea ecosystems.
In the meantime, several companies, including Google, Samsung, and BMW, have pledged to avoid using minerals sourced from deep-sea mining. They are responding to the calls from organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, which advocates for a halt in deep-sea mining until environmental safeguards are in place.
Over a dozen countries, including France, Germany, and various Pacific Island nations, have officially expressed support for a ban, pause, or moratorium on deep-sea mining until proper environmental regulations are established.
However, it remains unclear how many countries support or oppose deep-sea mining. Some countries, like Norway, are even considering opening their waters to such mining activities, illustrating the divergent views and policy approaches on this issue. The debates and discussions surrounding deep-sea mining will continue as governments, companies, and civil society organizations navigate the complexities of balancing resource exploitation and environmental conservation.