In late July, after weeks of fierce debate at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) meeting in Jamaica, deep-sea mining proponents failed to get an agreement for the immediate licensing of deep-sea mining operations.
The ISA has issued more than 30 exploration mining licences to date, although not for commercial scale operations. Most of the exploration currently is focused in an area between Hawaii and Mexico that spans some 4.5 million square kilometres, known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.
The ISA’s failure to get agreement on rules for deep-sea mining potentially buys the Pacific region time to take a precautionary approach in establishing guidelines and protocols which can be updated as we learn more.
The recent ISA meeting looked at laying out regulations for the budding industry. A deadline of 9 July 2023 had been set to finalise the regulations. This was triggered in July 2021 by Nauru announcing its intention to begin seabed mining, using a loophole called the “two-year rule”, which obliged the ISA to provisionally approve applications by July 2023, regardless of whether regulations were in place.
Nauru now understandably wants to press ahead anyway because the ISA has had its two years and in Nauru’s opinion they can’t delay further.
But the regulatory framework for deep-sea mining is stuck in draft mode. The ISA intends to continue the elaboration of mining rules with a view to their adoption in 2025. Although primarily for the high seas it must be remembered that a very large part of the central and western Pacific Ocean is the EEZs of the many small vulnerable island nations.
Like Nauru, deep-sea mining offers a new revenue stream for their economies. But only if the emerging industry is managed to avoid the re-runs we’ve seen in other extractive sectors, such as tuna, where being “over the horizon” implied out of sight, no enforced regulation and little real benefit resulted at the time. Much can be learned from how the Pacific Islands region has successfully addressed tuna management.
Besides Nauru, who with its foreign partners are promoting immediate licensing on the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, the deep-sea mining proponents are typically not vulnerable island nations or even coastal states of the Pacific. They’re industrialised nations such as China, Norway, Mexico, and the UK who support fast-tracking licences for seabed mining with each having vested interests in removing precious metals and minerals from the region’s ocean bed.
These nations and their companies are particularly interested in cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese, and rare earths which would be extracted for electric car batteries, smartphones, and their green energy economies.
But what’s in it for the Pacific Island region? Undersea mining is promoted as having less of an environmental impact than land mining due to no overburden, but many in our region luckily have no exposure to either. Others argue about noise pollution of the extraction process, which logically would be localised and more concerning perhaps are predictions of dust clouds in the surface waters.
The latter is unlikely: every gram of ground minerals slurry raised from the seafloor has commercial value, so logically every grain will be filtered out on board the vessel. Perhaps more concerning is that the cold deep nutrient waters from the slurry must be returned to the sea floor, so as not to adversely impact surface and water column ecosystems.
It’s these sorts of rules that should be in the ISA policy. But any commercial industry without rules and monitoring will always be driven to shortcuts to increase profits. Typically, the environment suffers, and communities of the region miss out. There needs to be common minimum terms and conditions (MTCs), and observer monitoring for the nations as a condition to work in our region.
The ISA delay should be seen as an opportunity to fast track the development and adoption of regional standard MTCs for deep sea mining and demand that compatibility be applied in the adjacent high seas. This would be expected to be opposed by seabed mining proponent nations. But the region can leverage this by requiring that any in-zone access to be granted in the future is conditional upon high seas compatibility.
The ISA’s negotiations ended late July with more than 20 governments opposing fast-tracked licences. A growing number of countries are calling for a temporary suspension of deep-sea mining, saying they want more scientific studies to be done first. Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, Finland, Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, and Vanuatu were among the 21 countries that support a ban, moratorium, or precautionary pause on deep sea mining.
Clearly the region can get support from these “friends of the Pacific Small Island Developing States”.
Australian delegates at the ISA meeting emphasised that no plans of work for exploitation should be approved without robust scientific information that will allow for a comprehensive understanding of deep-sea ecosystems and the impacts of deep-sea mining especially in the neighbouring Pacific.
It’s time for Australia to facilitate this rather than sit on the fence leaving it to the ISA to worry about international waters and hope that there’s no adverse impact in our region.
Australia should focus on helping our Pacific friends develop seabed mining policy in their waters. We can respect their decision to mine or to not mine within their waters. But we should offer guidance on industry best practices on seabed mining if they chose that path.
As a minimum, Australia should support the Pacific Island states in establishing regional MTCs and demanding compatibility with the ISA rules of seabed mining in the adjacent high seas.
With the islands getting their own 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 in zone access” should be the target message to seabed mining nations.
Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia. Maurice Brownjohn is an independent consultant on fisheries and marine resource management. A version of this article appeared in Island Business September 2023.