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A High-Stakes Week for Deep-Sea Mining

As the International Seabed Authority meets to debate environmental regulations for the extraction of minerals from fragile ocean habitats, the debate grows between nations and corporations favoring mining and scientists concerned about irreversible impacts.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A deep-ocean species of sea cucumber swims over polymetallic nodules on the seabed.Lenaick LEP

KINGSTON, Jamaica – As the International Seabed Authority (ISA) meets this week at its oceanside headquarters to draft regulations governing the mining of unique deep-ocean habitats for valuable minerals, delegates to the United Nations-chartered organization face a seemingly impossible task: writing rules to protect from mining rare marine ecosystems of which little is known.

The ISA is charged under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea with regulating the exploitation of the seafloor outside national jurisdiction – in other words, nearly 50 percent of the planet – while at the same time preserving its biodiversity. Until recently, that mandate was more or less theoretical as mining metals at depths that can reach 6,500m (21,000ft) simply was not technologically possible.

That has changed, and over the past year the ISA and its 168 member states have accelerated efforts to write the “Mining Code,” a set of regulations that will permit the extraction of minerals crucial to the production of electric car batteries, mobile phones, solar panels and other gadgets of the postindustrial age. Since 2001, the ISA has issued 15-year contracts that give 29 corporations and state-backed companies exclusive rights to explore 1.3 million square km (500,000 square miles) of the seabed for cobalt, manganese, copper and other minerals found in polymetallic nodules, hydrothermal vent fields and in the crusts of underwater mountains called seamounts. Once the mining code is approved, the seabed authority can begin issuing individual mining licenses, called exploitation contracts in ISA lingo, which will run for 30 years.

During the ISA’s 24th annual session this week, delegates to the 36-member Council will hash out a host of complex topics, from royalty payments to liability issues. But the focus of the Council, the seabed authority’s policymaking body, is likely to be on environmental regulations and the creation of “regional environmental management plans” that would designate large swathes of the seafloor as no-mining zones to protect fragile habitats and long-lived and slow-reproducing organisms.

China, Japan, Singapore and other pro-mining nations, which argue that the extraction of minerals from the seabed would be far less environmentally and socially destructive than terrestrial mining, have urged the Council to move expeditiously to finish the regulations so that commercial mining can commence within the next several years. Some African, European and Latin American nations, along with Australia and New Zealand, have urged the Council to make environmental protection of the deep sea a priority. (The United States has not signed the Law of the Sea Treaty and thus is not a member of the ISA.) The European Parliament in February called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the environmental impacts of seabed mining are fully understood.

Some conservation groups and scientists, meanwhile, are calling for the seabed authority to fundamentally reexamine its mission.

Courtesy of the Pew Seabed Mining Project

“One of the issues we’re pushing is that the ISA has to seriously consider whether seabed mining is compatible with protection of the marine environment,” said Matthew Gianni, a cofounder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an alliance of international organizations that has observer status at the ISA.

“We are deeply concerned about the potentially irreversible losses of marine biodiversity which will likely result from deep-sea mining,” stated a petition submitted to the ISA by 50 international environmental and nongovernmental organizations. “While much remains unknown about deep-sea ecosystems, recent science calls for a fundamental rethinking of the course set towards allowing commercial deep-sea mining in the short term.”

As the Council session opened Monday morning, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a comprehensive report on seabed mining that concluded that the mining code lacks sufficient knowledge of deep-sea ecosystems and potential mining impacts to effectively protect marine life. The IUCN also questioned whether the seabed authority’s promotion of seabed mining was at odds with its mission to protect the deep-sea environment.

“To avoid possible conflicts of interest, it is appropriate for the ISA to consider divesting some responsibilities to autonomous review, inspection and/or enforcement entities,” the authors wrote.

In the latest draft of the seabed mining exploitation regulations, which delegates will consider this week, the ISA labeled as a “fundamental principle” the “protection and conservation of the marine environment, including biological diversity and ecological integrity.”

The draft, however, says little about how that principle will be implemented in practice.

So watch this this week for a vigorous discussion of regional environmental management plans. The plans are likely to be the main vehicle for balancing exploitation and preservation, and conservation groups and scientists are calling for them to be put in place before the ISA issues any mining licenses.

Only one environmental management plan has been approved so far. That was in 2012 for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a vast abyssal plain that stretches between Hawaii and Mexico. The CCZ has been targeted for the mining of polymetallic nodules, potato-sized rocks that cover the seabed in the millions and are rich in manganese with concentrations of nickel, iron, cobalt and other valuable metals. The CCZ environmental management plan designated Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEI) that prohibited extraction of nodules in nine 160,000 square-km (62,000 square-mile) blocks of the ocean floor.

Earlier this month, a group of prominent deep-sea scientists published a paper in the journal Science Advances proposing a design for a network of uniformly sized marine reserves that would protect hydrothermal vent ecosystems along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that contain deposits of copper and zinc. However, exploration licenses have already been issued to Poland, France and Russia for much of the area that the scientists advocated being spared from mining.

The Patania is a seabed tractor that deep-sea mining company GSR is testing as part of a system that would harvest polymetallic nodules. (GSR)

“This will be a major challenge – how to place APEIs appropriately given the large amount of the northern [Mid-Atlantic Ridge] currently under exploration contract,” Lisa Levin, a deep-sea marine ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and a coauthor of the paper, said in an email. “Some of the current exploration contract areas will need to become APEIs and it may be that uniform, similar sized bands won’t be possible.”

A bigger challenge may well be the paucity of data about hydrothermal vent fields – and other deep-ocean ecosystems. The vents, which spew superheated sulfide-laded fluids, spawned unique species and habitats that depend on chemical synthesis rather than photosynthesis – light – for life.

“Our knowledge of deep-sea ecosystems is scant and, without investment in regionally intensive baseline data collection, will likely remain so for decades,” the study’s authors wrote.

A briefing paper issued by the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, a global network of 600 scientists and other experts of which Levin is a leader, noted a similar lack of biological information about the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. “Despite over 200 research expeditions and 40 years of work in the CCZ there are almost no published taxonomic records of animals living in the CCZ,” stated the paper, which called the absence of such data “a major scientific knowledge gap that is impeding the development of environmental regulation in the area.”

Although the ISA has held workshops in recent months on the initial development of regional environmental management plans for mid-ocean ridges and seamounts, the technology to mine the deep sea appears to be advancing faster than the mining regulations.

In 2019, for instance, the Belgian mining equipment company Global Sea Mineral Resources plans to deploy machinery on the seafloor in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone to collect polymetallic nodules as part of a small-scale mining test. The company has filed a 335-page environmental impact statement to the ISA, but the organization’s obligation to approve, reject or put conditions on the mining test – such as requiring long-term monitoring of its impact – remains unclear, according to Gianni.

The clash between efforts to accelerate or slow down the momentum toward licensing deep-sea mining will be in sharper relief here this week. “I hope they will think through issues carefully and not rush decisions,” said Levin. “More time is needed for evaluation and completion of the environmental regulations.”

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