In June, the United Nations approved a landmark treaty to preserve ocean biodiversity, seeming to augur a transformation in how countries and corporations do business on the high seas. But as the U.N.-affiliated International Seabed Authority (ISA) meets in Kingston, Jamaica, this week, it will be writing rules for deep sea mining that threatens the very ecosystems in need of preservation.
The ISA’s annual meeting comes at a pivotal moment for seabed mining, which has the potential to become a trillion-dollar industry as the transition to electric vehicles spurs demand for metals like cobalt and nickel, found in the deep ocean. On July 9, a deadline passed for the ISA to enact regulations for deep sea mining.
The group’s 167 member nations (plus the European Union) are now obligated to accept license applications from companies that want to begin mining, even in the absence of environmental safeguards. How the ISA will respond to applicants is a key question for the coming weeks. The Authority could also consider a proposal from Chile, France, Palau and Vanuatu to prohibit the approval of any mining licenses until regulations are enacted.
The ISA, which has a permanent staff of 52 people and an annual budget of around $10 million, is convening amid an intensifying geopolitical showdown over seabed mining. A growing number of ISA member nations in Europe, Latin America and the Pacific are calling for a moratorium or pause on mining due to a dearth of scientific knowledge about deep ocean ecosystems and seabed mining’s impact on them.
As the ISA meeting opened on Monday, member nation Canada, an industrial mining giant, joined the call for a moratorium. Meanwhile, pro-mining member states that include China, Russia, Norway, Japan and South Korea are pressing the ISA to complete the regulations and begin issuing licenses. With global attention focused on an international organization that long operated in obscurity, here’s what you need to know about the ISA, seabed mining and who stands to profit from industrializing the world’s last untouched wilderness.
The 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) established the ISA to regulate the exploitation of the seabed in international waters, and to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment. At the time, the seabed, which is estimated to harbour the world’s largest reserves of minerals, was thought to be a largely lifeless abyss.
The ISA was created to avoid repeating the colonial exploitation of terrestrial minerals such as gold and copper, which enriched the West and left a legacy of environmental devastation and poverty in developing nations. To that end, UNCLOS declared the seabed to be the “common heritage” of humankind. Royalties and other benefits from deep sea mining must be shared among ISA member nations, with preference given to developing countries.
UNCLOS established an Assembly consisting of all ISA member nations as the organization’s decision-making body. A 36-nation Council formulates policy and in turn delegates much of that work to a Legal and Technical Commission (LTC). The LTC consists of 41 experts appointed by member states to draft regulations, review mining applications and make recommendations for their approval. The LTC deliberates behind closed doors and it takes a two-thirds vote of the Council to reject such a recommendation.
When the ISA began operating in 1994, mining for minerals 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) below the surface of the ocean remained commercially and technologically unfeasible. ISA meetings were sparsely attended and rarely made headlines. In the organization’s early years, it concentrated on writing regulations to govern the exploration of potential mining sites.
Since 2001, the ISA has issued 31 exploration contracts to private companies, state-backed enterprises and government agencies to prospect for cobalt, nickel and other minerals over more than 500,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometres) of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. All mining companies must be sponsored by an ISA member state, which must maintain “effective control” over the contractor and is responsible for ensuring its compliance with environmental regulations.
Sponsor states can in turn collect royalties and fees from their contractors. Since 2017, the ISA has been slowly developing a complex “Mining Code” meant to include environmental standards, a formula for sharing mining royalties and inspection and compliance procedures for policing industrial activity that would occur thousands of miles from shore and 2.5 miles below the ocean’s surface.
The ISA has issued exploration contracts to prospect for minerals on underwater mountains called seamounts and at hydrothermal vent fields, which spew superheated sulfide-laden fluids that have laid down mineral deposits over eons. But most mining companies are focused on polymetallic nodules, potato-sized rocks rich in cobalt, nickel and other metals.
Nodules cover the sea floor by the billions in a region of the Pacific Ocean called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, which lies between Hawaii and Mexico. Over tens of millions of years, minerals precipitated from seawater and accumulated around shark teeth and other objects. Scientists estimate that nodules are habitats for half of the larger animals in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.
In 2021, ISA member Nauru — a South Pacific island nation of 8,000 people — invoked the “two-year rule,” a UNCLOS provision that required the ISA to complete the mining code by July 9, 2023, or accept applications under whatever regulations exist at the time. Nauru is the ISA state sponsor of The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian-registered venture formerly known as DeepGreen.
Nauru triggered the two-year rule shortly after TMC, which also holds exploration contracts sponsored by two other small South Pacific island nations, told potential investors that it expected to begin mining by 2024. More recently, the company said it expected to file an application to begin mining by the end of this year. A 2021 investigation by Bloomberg Green raised questions about TMC’s business practices and revealed the company’s leverage over its state sponsors.
In U.S. securities filings made before TMC went public in 2021, the company estimated the cost of a single deep sea mining operation and an onshore processing plant at $10.6 billion, with annual operating costs of $1.8 billion after 2030. For much of the past year, TMC shares have traded under a dollar. They closed at $2.77 on Monday, giving the company a $770 million market cap.
While a number of companies hold exploration contracts, few are actively preparing to begin mining should the ISA approve regulations. GSR, a subsidiary of Belgian dredging giant Deme, holds an ISA exploration contract and, like TMC, has tested a prototype of a mining machine that collects polymetallic nodules on the seabed.
U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin’s interest in deep sea mining dates to the 1970s and its British subsidiary had held ISA licenses in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone since 2013. But in March, Lockheed abruptly exited the nascent industry when it sold its seabed mining subsidiary to a Norwegian startup. China holds five exploration contracts, the most of any ISA member.
Japan has tested seabed mining prototypes in its territorial waters. In a 2022 peer-reviewed study, a team of leading deep-sea scientists conducted an exhaustive review of available research and found “no or next to no scientific knowledge” for most of the seabed targeted for mining. The researchers, who included four members of the ISA Legal and Technical Commission, determined that the effective regulation of deep-sea mining is not currently possible.
A separate peer-reviewed paper published this May determined that the areas of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone set for mining are home to more than 5,000 species, nearly all of them unknown to science. According to ISA documents, some mining contractors have repeatedly failed to conduct sufficient environmental baseline research on the areas targeted for mining, as required by their exploration contracts. Such data is crucial to implement effective environmental regulations.
A 2019 National Geographic investigation found that over a 16-year period, some contractors had collected only a single biological sample for every 4,000 square miles of their 29,000-square-mile areas. Investigations by Bloomberg Green, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have revealed the closeness of the ISA Secretariat, the organization’s administrative arm, to the mining companies the Authority regulates, including TMC.
Mining proponents argue that exploiting the seabed would be far less damaging to the environment and society than terrestrial mining that destroys rainforests, pollutes waterways and employs children as laborers. TMC portrays deep sea mining as crucial to fighting climate change by obtaining metals to make electric car batteries, wind turbines and other green technologies.
The U.S. is not an ISA member nation, as it has not ratified UNCLOS, but it is an accredited observer that attends Authority meetings. At the March 2023 ISA Council meeting, a U.S. representative said mining licenses should not be issued until regulations are in place. The ISA Council meeting is on now (from July 10) through July 21 and will spend most of its time trying to reach agreement on mining regulations.
The Assembly meets July 24 to July 28. A particularly thorny issue is the amount of royalties mining companies will be required to pay the ISA and how they would be distributed to member states for resources that belong to all countries. A big question is when and whether any delegation will formally move to bring a moratorium or pause on deep sea mining to a vote.