Nations Put New Focus on Environmental Impacts of Deep-Sea Mining

As the International Seabed Authority writes regulations to govern the mining of the ocean floor for valuable minerals, delegates at the U.N.-chartered organization’s recent meeting stressed the need to ensure unique deep ocean animals and habitats are protected.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Scientists in 2016 discovered a new species of octopus that lays its eggs on the stalks of sponges attached to polymetallic nodules on the seabed that have been targeted for mining.NOAA

“The world is now watching.”

Those were the words of Olav Myklebust, president of the council of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) on March 5 as he opened the semi-annual meeting of the United Nations-chartered organization charged with protecting the fragile and unique ecosystems of the deep ocean while opening them up to industrial mining.

The ISA has operated in relative obscurity from its Kingston, Jamaica headquarters since its creation in 1994 – mainly because mining for manganese, cobalt, copper and other valuable minerals at depths that can reach 13,000ft (4,000m) was long considered not technologically or commercially feasible.

That has changed in recent years. The seabed authority is now in the midst of writing regulations – called the mining code – that will govern how private companies and state-backed corporations mine the area of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction: the seabed, underwater mountains called seamounts and hydrothermal vent fields that are home to unique life forms and ecosystems. The mining code will also establish what environmental standards will apply to mining and what protections will be put in place to safeguard those habitats. And it will direct how the financial bounty from mining will be shared among nations as “the common heritage of mankind,” as mandated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

With the prospect that commercial mining could begin within a few years, attention is now being paid to the seabed authority (beyond a small cadre of scientists and advocates who have spent years raising red flags about the potentially irreversible destruction of deep-sea life and ecosystems that have barely been explored).

Meeting weeks after the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted for a non-binding resolution calling for a ban on seabed mining until its impact can be assessed, delegates at the ISA meeting in March brought environmental issues to the forefront. That marked a shift from the authority’s previous meeting in August, when draft mining regulations were unveiled that left environmental issues largely unresolved and discussions focused on completing the code by 2019 to let mining commence as soon as possible. The March meeting also underscored a split among the 168 member nations of the seabed authority assembly and the 36 national delegates that serve on the Council, the ISA’s policymaking body.

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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)

Delegates from France, Germany and other European countries – as well as representatives from Latin America, Africa and Australia – emphasized that the seabed authority should make environmental protection a priority. They advocated a precautionary approach that would put deep-sea habitats off-limits to mining if the environmental impact could not be determined due to a lack of scientific data.

They also pushed for the drafting of regional environmental management plans to identify areas that should be protected from mining, according to reports filed from the Kingston meeting by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin reporting service.

On the other hand, China, Japan, South Korea and other countries that hold contracts to explore potential mining areas stressed the need to balance environmental and commercial interests and not overly burden mining companies.

“I think many governments have woken up to what’s going on,” said Kristina Gjerde, senior high seas adviser at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, who attended the March meeting in Kingston. “It’s beginning to show some real schisms among states. There were more European states speaking up about environmental issues at this meeting.”

Conn Nugent, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Seabed Mining Project, also attended the ISA meeting. “The thing that was gratifying to us was the almost compulsory tribute to the need for environmental protection,” he said. “Everybody said it was important to protect the marine environment. Some delegations hedged a bit, putting it on par or less with extraction.

“The regional environmental management plans are the vehicle to get large no-mining areas,” added Nugent. “We want them to be scientifically well verified and will work to draw large lines around no-mining areas.”

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A deep-ocean species of sea cucumber swims over polymetallic nodules on the seabed. (Lenaick LEP)

Since 2001, the seabed authority has awarded 15-year contracts to 27 mining companies that give them the exclusive right to explore a total of 520,000 square miles (1.3 million square km) of the seabed in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans for minerals. Seventeen of those contracts cover 29,000 square-mile (75,000 square-km) sections of the seabed for polymetallic nodules – potato-sized chunks of rock rich in manganese concentrations of nickel, iron, cobalt and other valuable metals. Other contracts have been issued for 3,900 square-mile (10,000 square-km) patches to look for polymetallic sulfides at hydrothermal vent fields, and 1,160 square-mile (3,000 square-km) concessions to explore cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts of seamounts.

Once the mining code is finalized and approved, the seabed authority will begin issuing 30-year “exploitation” contracts that will allow companies to extract minerals from the seafloor and seamounts.

What remains to be seen is whether the environmental concerns raised at this month’s meeting will be reflected in the next draft of the code that will be negotiated when the ISA reconvenes in July in Kingston.

But the world will increasingly be paying attention, said Gjerde and Nugent. “I think the issue has made it from the AA leagues to AAA,” said Nugent. “We’ll be in the majors next year.”

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