JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — The International Seabed Authority — the United Nations body that regulates the world’s seabed — is preparing to resume negotiations that could open the international seabed to mining, including for materials essential to the green energy transition.
Years of negotiations have reached a critical point where the authority will soon have to start accepting applications for mining permits, adding to concerns about potential impacts on understudied marine ecosystems and deep sea habitats.
Here’s a look at what deep sea mining is, why some companies and countries are asking for permits to mine it, and why environmental activists are raising concerns.
WHAT IS DEEP SEA MINING?
Deep sea mining involves removing deposits of minerals and metals from the seabed. There are three types of such mining: extracting deposit-rich polymetallic nodules from the ocean floor, extracting massive sulphide deposits from the seafloor, and extracting cobalt crusts from rock.
These nodules, deposits, and crusts contain materials, such as nickel, rare earths, cobalt, and more, that are needed for batteries and other materials used to harness renewable energy as well as everyday technologies like cell phones. and computers.
The engineering and technology used for deep sea mining is still evolving. Some companies seek to suck up material from the seabed using massive pumps. Others are developing AI-based technology that would teach robots in the depths how to dig up nodules from the ground. Some are looking to use advanced machinery that could mine materials off huge undersea mountains and volcanoes.
Businesses and governments view them as strategically important resources that will be needed as terrestrial reserves are depleted and demand continues to rise.
HOW IS DEEP SEA MINING REGULATED NOW?
Countries manage their own maritime territory and exclusive economic zones, while the high seas and international seabed are governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. whether or not they have signed or ratified it. Under the treaty, the seabed and its mineral resources are considered the “common heritage of mankind” which must be managed in such a way as to protect the interests of mankind through the sharing of economic benefits, support for research marine science and the protection of marine environments.
Mining companies interested in deep sea mining partner with countries to help them secure exploration licenses.
More than 30 exploration licenses have been issued so far, with activity mostly concentrated in an area called the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, which spans 1.7 million square miles (4.5 million square kilometres) between Hawaii and Mexico.
WHY IS THERE PRESSURE ON THE ISA TO ESTABLISH REGULATIONS NOW?
In 2021, the Pacific island nation of Nauru – in partnership with mining company Nauru Ocean Resources Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Canadian firm The Metals Company – applied to the ISA to exploit minerals in an area high seas specified.
This has triggered a clause in the UN treaty which requires the ISA to complete regulations governing exploitation on the high seas by July 2023. If no regulations are finalized, Nauru can submit an application to conduct exploitation mining without any regulations in force.
Other countries and private companies can start applying for provisional licenses if the UN body does not approve a set of rules and regulations by July 9. Experts say that won’t be the case since the process will likely take several years.
WHAT ARE THE ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS?
Only a small portion of the deep seabed has been explored and conservationists fear that ecosystems could be damaged by mining, especially without any environmental protocols.
Mining damage can include noise, vibration and light pollution, as well as possible leaks and spills of fuels and other chemicals used in the mining process.
Sediment plumes from certain mining processes are a major concern. Once valuable materials have been extracted, plumes of muddy sediment are sometimes released into the sea. This can harm filter-feeding species like corals and sponges, and could smother or interfere with some creatures.
The scale of the implications for deep-sea ecosystems is unclear, but scientists have warned that biodiversity loss is inevitable and potentially irreversible.
“We’re constantly finding new things and it’s a bit premature to start mining the seabed when we don’t really understand the biology, the environments, the ecosystems or anything else,” said Christopher Kelley, a biologist specializing in deep sea ecology research.
The ISA’s Legal and Technical Committee, which oversees the development of deep-sea mining regulations, will meet in early July to discuss the draft mining code, which is yet to be drafted.
Mining under ISA regulations could begin in 2026 at the earliest. Mining applications must be reviewed and environmental impact assessments must be completed.
Meanwhile, some companies – such as Google, Samsung, BMW and others – have backed the WWF’s call for a pledge to avoid using minerals mined from the world’s oceans. More than a dozen countries, including France, Germany and several Pacific island nations, have officially called for a ban, pause or moratorium on deep sea mining at least until environmental safeguards are in place, although it is unclear how many other countries support such mining. Other countries, such as Norway, are proposing to open their waters to mining.
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