European Parliament Calls for a Moratorium on Deep-Sea Mining

European legislators have voted overwhelmingly for a resolution that advocates halting efforts to mine the seabed for minerals – until the environmental consequences of industrializing the high seas can be determined.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A seabed mining machine built for Nautilus Minerals.YouTube/Nautilus Minerals

As the International Seabed Authority (ISA) drafts regulations to govern the mining of the ocean for valuable minerals, the European Parliament has called for a ban on seabed mining until the environmental impacts and risks of disturbing unique deep-sea ecosystems are understood.

In a resolution, the European Parliament also urged the European Commission to persuade member states to stop sponsoring and subsidizing licenses to explore and exploit the seabed in international waters as well as within their own territories. The seabed mining provisions were part of a larger measure on international ocean governance that addressed plastic pollution, climate change, fisheries, coral reefs and other marine issues.

According to the resolution, the European Parliament “calls on the Commission and the member states to support an international moratorium on commercial deep-sea mining exploitation licenses until such time as the effects of deep-sea mining on the marine environment, biodiversity and human activities at sea have been studied and researched sufficiently and all possible risks are understood.”

While the resolution that passed on January 16 is nonbinding and the European Parliament has no legal say in international deep-sea mining, it marks the highest-profile opposition to date to the nascent industrialization of the seabed, a process that is proceeding largely out of public sight under the jurisdiction of the International Seabed Authority. The United Nations-chartered body headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica, consists of 168 member states that issue licenses to corporations and state-owned companies for the exploration and eventual mining of the seabed. The ISA is currently developing regulations that would permit the extraction from the deep sea of mineral deposits rich in manganese, nickel, iron, cobalt and rare elements crucial in the manufacture of smartphones, solar panels, batteries and other products essential to the global economy.

“The resolution has no formal legal authority, but because a large majority of the European Parliament voted in support of it, I think it will have some real political weight,” Matthew Gianni, the cofounder of the nonprofit Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, said of the measure, which received 558 votes out of 666 cast. “Certainly there is a growing debate within the E.U. over whether or not seabed mining needs to be done or should be done.”

The secretary-general of the International Seabed Authority, Michael Lodge, told Oceans Deeply in an email that, “This seems to be something internal to the European Parliament. It is not something that the ISA would have any comment about.”

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(Courtesy of the Pew Charitable Trusts)

Like Gianni, Conn Nugent, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Seabed Mining Project, is a close observer of the ISA. He was more skeptical of the European Parliament’s influence. “There is no evidence (so far, at least) that any national government is prepared to endorse what [they] said in this regard,” Nugent said in an email.

On the other hand, he noted, “I would also say that the … resolution reflects a modest but noticeable upsurge in the interest level about deep-sea mining among West European environmentalists. If that modest upsurge were to grow into a strong movement, and if that movement were to influence the votes of E.U. member-state delegations in the ISA, well, that would be worth watching.”

The ISA to date has issued exploration licenses to 28 contractors that cover more than 520,000 square miles (1.3 million square km) of the seabed in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. Contractors – ranging from Lockheed Martin subsidiary UK Seabed Resources to the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association – are targeting millions of potato-sized polymetallic nodules that cover the Pacific Ocean floor between Hawaii and Mexico; hydrothermal vent fields that contain polymetallic sulfides; and underwater mountains called seamounts rich in cobalt and other metals.

Once thought to be a vast wasteland where few organisms could survive crushing pressures, perpetual darkness and freezing temperatures, the seafloor remains barely explored, but marine scientists now know it’s home to a diversity of distinctive life forms whose fragile habitats are among the areas targeted for mining. Little is also known about the impact of mining the seabed on those ecosystems and whether such activities could lead to the extinction of marine life found only in particular habitats at depths that can reach 4 miles (6km) below the ocean surface.

That has prompted researchers, conservation groups and some government officials to urge the ISA to put large swathes of the seabed off-limits to mining and to impose strict environmental rules on contractors.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which regulates marine activities beyond national jurisdiction, declared the seafloor to be “the common heritage of mankind, the exploration and exploitation of which shall be carried out for the benefit of mankind as a whole.” It also mandated “effective protection for the marine environment from harmful effects which may arise from such activities” and the “prevention of damage to the flora and fauna of the marine environment.”

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

The seabed authority tried to balance those seemingly conflicting obligations in draft “exploitation” regulations released by its Legal and Technical Commission at the ISA’s annual meeting in Kingston last August, with the aim of adopting a mining code by 2020 to allow mining to proceed.

But comments on the draft regulations submitted by member states, mining contractors, scientists and conservation groups that the ISA released earlier this month indicate that significant differences remain.

China, Japan and South Korea – nations that hold mining exploration licenses and plan to mine the seabed – cautioned against burdening mining contractors with excessive environmental regulations. Japan, for instance, stated that the seabed authority should not require regular inspections of mining operations to ensure compliance with environmental regulations.

“To minimize the burdens of states, contractors and the Secretariat of the ISA including financial burdens, Japan is of the view that it is appropriate not to have inspections by inspectors on a regular basis but to have them only when deemed necessary,” Japan’s representatives wrote.

Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other countries that do not hold exploration licenses advocated for strong environmental standards, enforcement and monitoring. They said the seabed authority should implement the precautionary principle approach, which would deny licenses for mining projects when insufficient scientific evidence exists about the potential impact on deep-sea ecosystems.

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Giant tubeworms of the genus Riftia live on dark volcanic rock typical of the deep-sea Alarcon Rise hydrothermal vent field off the Mexican coast. (Courtesy of MBARI)

“South Africa stresses the importance of conservation of the marine environment and that any exploration or exploitation of the international seabed should be sustainable,” wrote the representatives from South Africa. “The code is currently particularly weak on environmental aspects,” they added.

“A transparent and credible environmental impact assessment process is needed, but there is currently no transparency on information on contracts outside the Legal and Technical [Commission] due to confidentiality issues,” the delegates said.

Other countries and the European Parliament in its resolution echoed concerns over a lack of transparency at the ISA. Under current rules, the ISA considers mining contracts to be confidential, as are the environmental data and compliance reports contractors regularly submit to the seabed authority’s Legal and Technical Commission, a group of 30 delegates who review and approve mining concessions. The Commission withholds that information from the ISA Council, the organization’s 36-member policymaking body as well as the full assembly of member states.

The ISA member states will meet in March and July in Jamaica to negotiate the regulations in light of the comments received.

The European Parliament is just one of a growing number of observers taking an interest in the seabed authority and the mining regulations. For instance, the Benioff Ocean Initiative, a nonprofit affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, and funded by Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, submitted comments recommending that the ISA require all seabed mining vessels to be equipped with tracking devices called Automatic Identified Systems so their activities could be monitored in real time.

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