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Hurry Up and Wait: Big Decisions on Seabed Mining Remain Unresolved

Faced with a 2020 deadline, the International Seabed Authority has a daunting challenge in completing regulations that will fulfill its mandate to allow the mining of deep-sea ecosystems for minerals while protecting unique marine habitats.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The opening day of the Council of the International Seabed Authority’s July meeting.Todd Woody

KINGSTON, Jamaica – It felt like Groundhog Day at the International Seabed Authority last week.

When delegates to the United Nations-chartered organization met for their annual meeting here, complex issues that have dogged the writing of regulations to govern the mining of the deep sea for valuable minerals once again cast a shadow on the proceedings. Among them, how to fulfill the International Seabed Authority (ISA)’s obligation to protect unique deep ocean habitats from mining impacts? How to equitably share among nations royalties from mining the seabed that, under international law, are the “common heritage of mankind”? How to make a secretive decision-making process more transparent, particularly when it comes to revealing mining contractors’ compliance with already-existing environmental rules?

The weeklong meeting of the ISA Council – the organization’s 36-member policymaking body – ended Friday with no resolution of those and other issues in sight, despite a self-imposed 2020 deadline to complete the “Mining Code,” the set of regulations that will allow “exploitation” to begin for manganese, cobalt, copper and other metals. In fact, the Council will not further consider the draft regulations until its 2019 meeting.

That didn’t sit well with some delegates from the ISA’s 168 member nations. “We must continue to remember the urgency of establishing regulations for exploitation, and if not, 2020 will be upon us and we will not be ready,” Tommo Monthe, Cameroon’s delegate, told the Council last Tuesday.

Since 2001, the ISA has issued licenses to 29 corporations and state-backed companies and organizations to explore 1.3 million square km (500,000 square miles) of the deep sea outside national jurisdiction for minerals. Those metals are found in polymetallic nodules on the seafloor, in deposits around hydrothermal vents and in the crusts of underwater mountains called seamounts.

Now those companies and their sponsoring states are eager to begin mining but are hesitant to invest billions of dollars unless the exploitation regulations are put in place – soon. For instance, Belgian company Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR) aims to begin mining in 2027 – if regulations are finalized within two years so it can determine the costs of environmental compliance and other expenditures.

In April 2019, GSR plans to lower a “pre-prototype” of a large tractor-sized machine to the seabed some 4,000m (13,000ft) below the surface of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a vast abyssal plain that stretches between Hawaii and Mexico. GSR will test the ability of the machine, called the Patania II, to collect potato-sized polymetallic nodules rich in manganese with concentrations of nickel, iron, cobalt and other valuable metals. The nodules also serve as habitat for deep-sea octopuses, sponges and other organisms in a marine ecosystem that scientists have recently discovered to be a hotbed of biodiversity.

seabed mining IHC nodule test vehicle.jpg

An artist’s rendering of a deep-sea vehicle designed by Dutch company Royal IHC to harvest polymetallic nodules from the seabed. (Royal IHC)

But developing a complete nodule collector system will require an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Kris Van Nijen, GSR’s general manager.

“If they don’t make a decision in 2020 … we won’t move forward,” he said Thursday during a presentation to ISA delegates.

“There’s an opportunity cost” to waiting, he added.

The wait is likely to continue.

“I would like to stress that this is not the time for decisions,” Council president Olav Myklebust of Norway told delegates last Tuesday. Rather, he asked them to review the current draft of the regulations and make recommendations to the ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission, a 30-member group responsible for drafting and revising the mining code that operates largely in secret.

The tension between the ISA’s dual – and conflicting – mandates to promote the exploitation of the little-known seafloor that covers about half the planet while ensuring its protection was on display last week in Kingston.

The draft regulations that the Council reviewed provide for the protection of the marine environment as a “fundamental principle,” but lacked any detail on how that protection would be ensured. Specific environmental standards for what constitutes unacceptable harm to deep-sea ecosystems and guidelines for conducting environmental assessments and reviews have yet to be developed.

“The question is, would the regulations adequately protect the marine environment and our answer is no,” said Germany’s delegate, a sentiment echoed by delegations from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. “The field of environmental regulation needs significant further development. Firstly and above all, there remains a lack of specific environmental requirements as part of the regulations. Currently the environmental impact assessment requirements are limited to a mere form to be filled out by the contractor with neither quantitative nor normative provisions.”

Japan’s delegate, supported by China, Singapore, Poland and other pro-mining nations, argued that the regulations “should strike a balance between exploitation and environmental conservation” and not overly burden mining contractors.

There did appear to be a consensus among delegates that the centerpiece for environmental protection should be “regional environmental management plans,” or REMPs, which would place large swathes of the deep sea off-limits to exploitation while providing a process for monitoring the impacts from the mining of seabed minerals. Delegates from several countries strongly insisted that such plans be put in place before any mining is allowed to proceed.

However, only one REMP – for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone – has been developed so far, and the years-long process of creating others just began several months ago. In a sign of how those management plans have been based on scant environmental data, scientists last week said the Clarion-Clipperton Zone REMP – approved in 2012 – should be revised before mining is allowed, given growing knowledge of the area’s biodiversity.

Mining contractors already must comply with exploration regulations that require them to file yearly reports that demonstrate that they are collecting and reporting environmental data on the biodiversity of the areas they want to mine. But when the Legal and Technical Commission released its annual report to the Council last week, it stated that some contractors had repeatedly failed to meet their obligations. The Commission refused to reveal the identities of the contractors, citing confidentiality agreements.

As at the Council’s 2017 meeting last August, a number of delegates and observers asked pointed questions about how the Council could fulfill its oversight duties when it is kept in the dark about contractors’ performance, and whether some contractors should be allowed to mine if they flout the regulations.

“I don’t understand the reasons for the nondisclosure of the names of the contractors who are derelict in their duty,” Conn Nugent, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Seabed Mining Project and a longtime observer of the ISA, told Council. “I’m at a loss to understand why this veil of secrecy is being drawn across those who haven’t obeyed the regulations.”

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