UN body can face litigation if seabed mining is approved before developing regulations: Paper

Council of the International Seabed Authority needs to discuss appropriate means for equitable sharing of benefits, among other things

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Friday 21 July 2023
Photo: iStock_

The Council of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a United Nations body tasked with developing mining regulations, is in a tight spot. 

The council could likely face litigation if they favour or block mining activities on the high seas.

Deep-sea mining involves extracting ores rich in cobalt, manganese, zinc and other rare metals from the sea floor. They contain critical minerals needed to build batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy capacity, smartphones and laptops.

The ISA finds itself in a sticky situation after Nauru, a tiny island northeast of Australia, invoked the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in June 2021. 

This gave the ISA a two-year deadline to either develop regulations for deep-sea mining or allow mining proposals sans international consensus on rules. The deadline expired on July 9, 2023.

“The risk of exposure to litigation is certainly much higher if the Authority decides to approve an application in the absence of regulations, as opposed to rejecting one,” Pradeep A Singh, a Fellow at the Research Institute for Sustainability, Helmholtz-Centre Potsdam, wrote in the paper.

On July 10, the ISA began negotiations during the second part of the 28th Annual Session of the International Seabed Authority in Jamaica. The meeting is also expected to deliberate on possible scenarios after Nauru’s request.

In addition to developing a set of rules, regulations and procedures for exploring and exploiting minerals in the international seabed area, the ISA is also tasked with protecting the marine environment from the potential impacts of deep-sea mining.

“There is not enough rigorous scientific information available concerning the biology, ecology and connectivity of deep-sea species and ecosystems, or all the ecosystem services they provide,” said Jessica Battle, an expert on global ocean governance and policy at The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) had previously told Down To Earth.

Without this information, she added, one could not understand the potential risks of the mining activity for deep-ocean biodiversity, ecosystems and human well-being.

Nations are divided over deep-sea mining. Several nations, including India, have their eyes set on deep-sea mining while more than 18 states have opposed it. 

On July 14, the Indian delegation said at the meeting that it supports “the efforts for the protection of the marine environment while harvesting deep-sea resources”. The delegation also called for a mining code that is acceptable to all before undertaking such activities, according to the deep sea conservation coalition.

However, there are issues. Along with China, India said there was no need for an independent peer review of the Environmental Impact Statement, a document which outlines the impact of a proposed project on its surrounding environment. The country also noted that it did not find it necessary to notify the general public of an Environmental Plan and an independent review on July 18.

There are also other concerns. The ISA has placed prohibitions on the participation of global media and observers present during the negotiations in Jamaica.

On July 19, civil society groups called the ISA Secretary General Michael Lodge to lift restrictions on freedom of expression and equal participation.

“Restraining access to meetings for media and threatening public monitors with the removal of accreditation is in contradiction with promoting a work environment that is safe, professional and of mutual trust where diversity and inclusion are valued’,” they wrote in a letter.

Uphill battle

ISA has to conduct a few tasks before approving a plan of work for exploitation activities. These include monitoring and regularly reviewing trends in world metal market conditions and metal prices, developing standards for the protection and preservation of the marine environment, and studying the environmental impact of activities in the seabed area to close knowledge gaps, and the like.

Also, more discussions need to be held. For instance, Singh explained that the Authority has not yet debated and agreed on the acceptable extent of harm. There is no clear understanding and demarcation between “effective protection”, “harmful effects” and “serious harm. However, doing this requires sufficient scientific knowledge and understanding. This is simply not there yet, Singh wrote.

For example, one study found that 88-92 per cent of species in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) could be undescribed. CCZ is a 6 million square kilometre region (roughly twice the size of India) in the central and eastern Pacifics known for its rich mineral reserves. Mineral exploration in this region began in the 1960s and 17 contracts for mineral exploration covering 1.2 million square km have been given.

Also, the body needs to discuss the appropriate means for equitable sharing of benefits and the arrangement of compensation for developing countries whose economies rely on land-based mining, according to the discussion paper.

Without an agreement on regulations, mining activities could add more burdens to humankind than any potential net benefit, Singh added.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.