Controversial deep sea mining negotiations showed progress, but many disagreements among member states remain

States’ proposals not included in consolidated text, while mining contractors’ proposals accepted; covered items not cleared

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Tuesday 02 April 2024
In November 2023, Nauru Ocean Resources Inc notified ISA of a disruption of its permitted exploration activities by representatives of Greenpeace International. However, multiple member states have reaffirmed the right to peaceful protest at sea. Photo: Martin Katz / Greenpeace via X (formerly known as Twitter)

The international agency responsible for developing a mining code for deep-sea mining has made some progress, but there is still a long way to go.

Deep-sea mining involves extracting ores rich in cobalt, manganese, zinc and other rare metals from the seafloor. Experts believe they contain critical minerals required for the production of batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy capacity, as well as smartphones and laptops.

More than 190 delegates and observers gathered in Jamaica from March 18-29, 2024, for the first part of the 29th session of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) Assembly and Council. 

Read more: You can’t mine the seabed without proper rules

ISA is an intergovernmental organisation established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to develop rules, regulations, and procedures relating to commercial exploitation of mineral resources from the deep sea.

For the first time, member states began negotiating on a consolidated text prepared by the president of the council at ISA’s 28th session last year. 

“The consolidated text was used as a basis for the negotiations. At this meeting, we covered about a third of them in terms of what is called a ‘first reading’,” Pradeep Singh, fellow at the Research Institute for Sustainability Helmholtz Centre Potsdam, told Down To Earth (DTE).

However, none of the covered items have been cleared, according to Singh, who added that they will be discussed again.

According to him, this was due to the fact that many textual proposals from member states were not included in the consolidated text, and in some cases, textual proposals from mining contractors were accepted. The states objected and asked that their proposals be included in the next version of the text. 

“Although we had a so-called ‘first reading’ and completed a third of the regulations, the entire process is flawed because we would need to go through the same provisions again once a new version is issued with all the previously omitted proposals now reinserted again,” he noted.

Read more: Norway approves seabed mining

The 35 regulations discussed in this meeting contained divergences of views, alternative texts, and many disagreed text or parts (marked in red and / or using square brackets), he added. 

Member states also noted there was a lack of clarity in the text. “The recent council meeting clearly shows that there remains a vast divide among member states regarding the development of a mining code in the absence of robust science,” Sofia Tsenikli, global deep-sea mining campaign lead, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), said in a statement.

Some of the other items discussed at the negotiations include underwater cultural heritage, test mining, regional environmental management plans, compliance committee, environmental compensation fund, royalties and safety measures.

Furthermore, UNCLOS requires the establishment of an economic assistance fund and a compensation system to assist developing countries that suffer serious economic consequences as a result of lower export mineral prices caused by deep-sea minerals.

There is still no agreement on the fund’s purpose, who should manage it and how it should be implemented, Singh explained.

The other topic covered was test mining, which was proposed by Germany in 2019. It proposed making it mandatory for any contractor who wants to transition from exploration to exploitation to conduct some test mining during the exploration phase and report the results to the ISA, Singh explained. This, he added, would allow the ISA to better evaluate applications. 

A January 2024 paper published in journal Marine Policy highlighted there were more than 30 major outstanding issues in the regulations.

Read more: Seabed mining could sink the fishing industry

One of these issues, according to the paper, include protecting the marine environment from harmful effects caused by seabed mining, which the ISA is obligated to do under UNCLOS. 

Under UNCLOS, the ISA regulates activities on the seabed and ocean floor beyond the scope of national jurisdiction while ensuring their protection. So far, the intergovernmental body has issued 31 exploration contracts, totaling 1.5 million square kilometres of seabed, roughly half the size of the United States. 

The council also deliberated on a controversy over the right to protest. In November 2023, Nauru Ocean Resources Inc — a subsidiary of the Canadian deep-sea mining exploration company called The Metals Company and sponsored by Nauru (the world’s smallest island nation) — notified ISA of a disruption of its permitted exploration activities by representatives of independent global campaigning network Greenpeace International.

During negotiations, Nauru called for a revocation of Greenpeace’s observer status and urged the ISA to establish safety zones around mining vessels.

The country convened two meetings (closed to observers) on March 28 and 29 to discuss a
proposal to discuss this matter. The idea was to prevent any other vessels from coming near a ship engaged in mining activities, Singh said.

However, Nauru’s proposals are being brushed aside for the time being, with multiple states reaffirming the right to peaceful protest at sea, DSCC noted.

In 2021, Nauru issued a letter notifying the agency of NORI’s intention to apply for an exploitation contract in the Area within two years, putting additional pressure on the ISA to develop a mining code. This triggered the ‘two-year rule’, which stipulates that the Council adopt regulations for exploitation within two years of receiving such a notice.

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

The ISA passed the deadline of July 9, 2023, leading to an increase in intensity and frequency of negotiations at the ISA. At the 28th session, the ISA Council said it aims to adopt the regulations by 2025. 

The 2024 paper noted that the 2025 deadline is “unrealistic”, given the divergence of views among member states. The Council will next meet in July 2024.

Meanwhile, 25 states have taken positions against deep-sea mining, with some calling for a ban, a precautionary pause or a moratorium on the practice. This is because there is not enough information about the biology, ecology and connectivity of deep-sea species and ecosystems, or all the ecosystem services they provide.

“Without this information, one could not understand the potential risks of the mining activity for deep-ocean biodiversity, ecosystems and human well-being,” Jessica Battle, expert on global ocean governance and policy at conservation organisation World Wide Fund for Nature, told DTE.

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