The race to write the rulebook on deep seabed mining

Relicanthus sp.—a new species from a new order of Cnidaria collected at 4,100 meters in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ) that lives on sponge stalks attached to nodules. Image courtesy of Craig Smith and Diva Amon, ABYSSLINE Project.

Deep sea mining in international waters remains off-limits. But with efforts now underway to turn draft regulation into law and growing demand for mineral-rich technologies, scientists and environmentalists are raising the alarm over the future of this still little-known and under-explored ecosystem.

Somewhere, 20,000 leagues under the seas, there lurks something more exciting than the giant tentacular sea monster the novelist Jules Verne imagined.

Though still largely unexplored, the depths of the ocean and its adventure land of jagged cliffs, abyssal plains, hot springs and volcanic underwater mountains are home to a host of unusual marine species and otherworldly creatures still for the most part hidden from view.

There are other treasures too that humans have been eyeing for almost half a decade and that could soon spark a new race to the bottom of the ocean to mine them.  Scattered on the ocean floor lies fields of countless polymetallic nodules, formed over millions of years and packed with copper, nickel, manganese and other precious ores.

As land-based resources become harder to mine and demand for electric cars and other green technologies to power our low-carbon future continues to grow, companies and states have their minds on being able to access this trove of minerals.

Two other types of mineral deposits being explored are cobalt-rich crusts formed on the rocky surfaces of undersea rises and sulphides rich in metals such as zinc, lead or gold found around hydrothermal vents on underwater volcanic ridges.

Many commercial mining projects are already underway within countries’ territorial waters. But the biggest opportunities lie in international waters, beyond any national jurisdiction.

Also known as the high seas, this vast expanse of open ocean covers half the planet and, as set out in the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty, “is the common heritage of mankind”.

So far, no rules have been established to govern the exploitation of the international seabed for mineral resources. Mining here remains off limits. But with draft regulations drawn up and efforts now underway to turn these into law, scientists and oceanographers are raising the alarm over the future of this still little-known and unexplored ecosystem.

“Right now we’re heading into a goldrush,” said Carl Gustaf Lundin, principal scientist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) global marine and ocean programme.

“A number of companies and countries are looking for ways of quickly coming in and grabbing some of these resources. This is being done with lax environmental standards and at IUCN we’re really concerned with how this is going to play out.”

Who governs the seabed? In 1982, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a new body known as the International Seabed Authority (ISA), was tasked with governing activities on the ocean floor.

Effectively, it is mandated “to organise, regulate and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area for the benefit of mankind as a whole”. This involves both granting licenses to mining companies, deciding which locations exploration and mining will be allowed, but also setting regulations and environmental standards to protect the seabed from serious harm.

Based in Kingston, Jamaica, the autonomous organisation counts 167 member states and the European Union among its members and convenes a general assembly each year. The next one will be taking place in July, when it is expected to continue working on, and possibly finalising, the mining regulations.

"This is an important moment to discuss the topic [of deep sea mining], because at the meeting of the ISA assembling council this summer they will have to make some decisions as to whether they go ahead based on the first draft or whether they say, ‘there are just too many open questions - let's give the whole thing more time’”, said Torsten Thiele, founder of the Global Ocean Trust, a non-for-profit network focused on ocean conservation, and a senior research associate at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS).

“Council member states that are in the act of making this decision are the same countries that will discuss carbon issues at COP26 in Glasgow. And so, if you are a country, presenting your sustainability pathway you have to be quite clear that you do the same thing in these other settings as well,“ he told Geneva Solutions.

Scientists and conservation groups are monitoring the situation closely. Many are worried that the ISA secretariat may make hasty decisions. They argue that there is still not enough information available to be able to put together rules that are going to provide effective protection for the marine environment.

So far, the ISA has granted 30 contracts for exploration involving over 16 companies, sponsored by 22 different countries, and covering more than 1.3 million square kilometers of the seabed. The main area of interest is called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, located in the Pacific between Mexico and Hawaii, some 4,000 metres below the sea.

A world map showing the location of the three main marine mineral deposits..jpeg
A world map showing the location of the three main marine mineral deposits: polymetallic nodules (blue); polymetallic or seafloor massive sulfides (orange); and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts (yellow). Credit: 2018 Miller, Thompson, Johnston and Santillo. Redrawn from a number of sources including Hein et al. (2013).

Speaking at a panel earlier this month Minna Epps, global marine and polar programme director, at IUCN, said: “We still lack the technologies, the knowledge and the wisdom, really, to ensure that we can manage seabed mineral extraction in a way that does not cause serious extensive and long lasting harm. We do need to apply a precautionary approach, and really consider whether this is the best path to proceed at this moment in time.”

Risks of deep sea mining. Oceans remain one of the most under-researched areas on the planet. Start mining and researchers fear that you begin tampering with ecosystems before the relationship between the nodules that miners want to sweep up and the surrounding biodiversity and marine life has fully been explored.

Many species living in the deep sea are endemic – meaning they do not occur anywhere else on the planet – and physical disturbances in just one mining site can possibly wipe out an entire species, the IUCN explains. This is one of the biggest potential impacts from deep-sea mining.

Findings from recent expeditions have also shown marks on the seabed remaining from explorations carried out in the 1970s and 1980s, pointing to the longstanding effects and scars any extensive works could have.

Mining also risks stirring up fine sediments on the seafloor consisting of silt and clay that could smother animals on the seafloor.  What’s more, underwater species such as whales could be affected by noise, vibrations caused by mining equipment, as well as any potential leaks and spills of fuel and toxic products.

Calls for an environmental committee at ISA. Last week the Legal and Technical Commission (LTC), a body within the ISA tasked with drafting the standards and guidelines for the mining code, resumed its meetings until July. The LTC also reviews applications for extension of exploration contracts and will also eventually oversee exploitation contracts.

The body comprises 30 experts elected by the council, the ISA’s executive authority. However, researchers have raised concerns about the lack of representatives on the committee with environmental expertise. They have also called for more transparency over the decision-making processes.

“Its current composition mostly includes lawyers and geologists. In fact only a handful of these members have environmental or ecological expertise,” Pradeep Singh, a research associate at IASS, said speaking at a recent panel discussion on deep sea mining organised by the IUCN and sponsored by the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI).

“Moving forward, what needs to be done is the ISA should consider setting up a dedicated environment committee to provide environmental expertise, or at least significantly enhance the environmental capacity of the LTC,” he added. The ISA has not yet reponded to Geneva Solutions’ request for a comment.

Adding to his comments, Jessica Battle, senior expert, global ocean policy and governance at WWF and lead on the No Deep Seabed Mining Initiative, said:  “I find it really worrisome that the governance structures that would be needed in order to make these decisions at the ISA are not there yet.  We do not have a committee or a group at the ISA that looks specifically at environmental issues for example.”

“The other really worrisome aspect here is we are really thinking about this very much in the dark,” she said highlighting the unknown effects of any potential mining projects on fisheries, for example, and in compounding existing ocean pressures.

Among the questions that need to be addressed, she says, is who will ultimately benefit?  “Is this something that is going to benefit a few companies, a few CEOs, a few shareholders...and how are we going to make sure any benefits to humankind now and in the future are going to be distributed from this?”

Creating a fair financial mechanism. A critical part of the seabed mining regulations will be the financial mechanism, or payment regime, guaranteeing that all humankind - including all future generations - benefit from any future activity on the seafloor - and not just the mining companies and sponsoring states.

In a policy brief released last week, IASS said informal discussions held so far by an open-ended ad hoc working group of the council “have prioritised a model that gives preference to enabling mining over delivering fair compensation for the loss of resources”.

It argues that a fundamentally different approach needs to be adopted: “The payment regime needs to be designed with the interests of humankind, and in particular of developing countries rather than contractors at its centre. Ensuring optimal returns requires a financial model that delivers best possible cost structures and timing.”

Deep-sea mining and what it means for a circular economy.  As the world ramps up its efforts to move to a greener economy, demand for batteries to power electric cars and story wind and solar energy is only set to grow. Advocates of seabed mining say expanding operations to the seafloor is necessary to provide the minerals needed to meet demand for renewable energy technologies. Many also argue that it is less destructive than land mining.

However, opponents argue that seabed mining threatens to undermine efforts to move towards more sustainable development.  WWF’s Battle says the prospect of more minerals coming into circulation risks eroding or delaying that possibility of moving to a circular economy.

Instead, the repair, recycling and reuse of products should be encouraged to help reduce the demand for raw materials from the deep sea or on land. Everyone can play their role by thinking twice before upgrading to a new mobile phone, or trading old models so that the materials are recycled, Battle says.