High seas drama over deep seabed mining
Seabed mining

Seabed mining will be very damaging unless regulated well from the start.

Written by

Anthony Bergin

The race is on to tap high seas mineral riches. The International Seabed Authority, based in Jamaica, is responsible for the seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. The ISA is negotiating this week to hammer out regulations for deep seabed mining. 

Deep sea mining companies are pressing the ISA to agree on a mining code. As the US has still not ratified the law of the sea convention, it can’t vote on important matters at the ISA and is reduced to observer status. China is keen to make sure governance arrangements are acceptable to it. It’s the largest financial contributor to the ISA and is at the forefront of the seabed mining industry. Out of the more than 30 exploration licences the ISA has issued, China has five, more claims than any other country. China will have exclusive rights to mine 238,000sq km of international seabed but it seems highly unlikely the ISA will be able to meet its goal to finalise regulations by next year. 

Minerals and metals such as cobalt, nickel, copper, and manganese are found in potato-sized nodules on the ocean floor. The resources are in heavy demand as the world looks for a net-zero future. The Clarion-Clipperton zone – a deep abyssal plain midway between Mexico and Hawaii – is the key area of deep-sea mining interest and the site targeted in most existing exploration contracts.

In addition to rules to mitigate any environmental impacts, ISA member countries disagree over the type and amount of royalties that companies would have to pay the ISA in exchange for mining rights, as well as inspection mechanisms to ensure compliance. Determining specific royalties, taxes and profit-sharing requirements hasn’t been easy. 

Twenty-four countries are calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. Discussions on this issue will take place in July at the ISA assembly made up of 167 states plus the EU. The main environmental concerns relate to the seabed, where the minerals will be scooped up resulting in changes to its structure, and the surface and the water column during lifting and offshore processing and transportation. There are also concerns about the impacts on the land from metal extraction and tailings disposal.

In the Pacific, Nauru may soon become the first country to collect nodules at commercial scale through Nauru Ocean Resources, owned by The Metals Company, a Canadian firm that’s sunk more than $100m into environmental impact assessments. The Cook Islands granted themselves three exploration licences in 2022. Unlike Pacific tuna management, there’s no regional architecture for seabed mining. Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu are urging that more research be undertaken before proceeding with any operations. 

Australia has neither endorsed nor condemned seabed mining, taking a precautionary approach, but we should help our Pacific friends develop a policy in their waters. We can respect their decisions within their offshore domains yet we should be able to offer guidance on the best way to mine and protect the undersea environment if they chose that path. With the islands getting their environmental rules in place for deep sea mining, they can then dictate what’s compatible in international waters. “Follow our rules in the adjacent high seas or don’t come asking for access in our offshore estates” should be their message to seabed mining nations. 

There are two complications. New Zealand is stridently anti-seafloor mining and island nations that don’t have seabed mineral resources are easy prey for environmental groups. Last November, Greenpeace disrupted a research expedition in the Clarion-Clipperton zone when they boarded a Metals Company vessel. The work to collect environmental data had been requested by the ISA. Expect more anti-science high seas drama from environmental groups as they try to prevent efforts aimed to help improve knowledge of the effects of seabed nodule collection. 

Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia. A version of this article appeared in The Australian 27 March 2024