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Deep-sea mining regulator’s latest meeting on rules only muddies the water

The dumbo octopus is a species only found in the deep sea. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2019 Southeastern U.S. Deep-sea Exploration.

  • Delegates of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the multilateral body in charge of deep-sea mining in international waters, met recently in Kingston, Jamaica, and discussed whether to adopt a set of rules — or mining code — to allow deep-sea mining to commence in as little as 18 months.
  • Deep-sea mining is a controversial activity that was pushed closer to the horizon when Nauru triggered a “two-year rule” that would theoretically require the ISA to grant an exploitation license within two years, no matter what mining regulations are in place.
  • Most ISA member states appeared to be in favor of pushing forward with the mining code, but others questioned the feasibility of this approach, according to observers who attended the meetings.
  • The ISA has a dual mandate to give nations equal opportunity and access to mine the seabed as well as to protect the ocean from mining’s harmful effects, but some experts say the ISA’s leadership holds favorable views of mining.

On the morning of Dec. 10, 20 Greenpeace activists jumped onto inflatable boats and motored across the gray waters of an industrial port in Rotterdam, Netherlands. They stopped in front of the red hull of the Hidden Gem, an enormous drill ship measuring 228 meters (748 feet) in length — twice the length of a football field — decked with drilling equipment and rigging that stretched high into the sky. Swiss-owned construction engineering company Allseas is currently renovating the ship to be the world’s first deep-sea mining vessel, aiming to complete work on it next year. However, the Canadian firm that intends to use the ship, The Metals Company (TMC), has yet to secure a license to exploit the seabed.

Scaling the sides of the ship, the activists hung yellow banners emblazoned with bold black letters: “No Deep Sea Mining.” From far away, the banners looked like tiny Post-it notes against the colossal bulk of the vessel.

Later that same day, delegates of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the multilateral body in charge of deep-sea mining in international waters, were meeting in Kingston, Jamaica. During the council meeting, there was a debate on whether to adopt a set of rules that would enable mining to proceed in the deep ocean in as little as 18 months.

While the exploitation stage of deep seabed mining has yet to begin, the Pacific island nation of Nauru, which sponsors a subsidiary of TMC, recently triggered an obscure “two-year rule” embedded in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The move would theoretically require the ISA to issue TMC an exploitation license by July 2023 no matter what regulations were currently in place by then.

What the ISA ultimately agreed upon at the end of its council meeting on Dec. 10 was to schedule a series of meetings in 2022 to accelerate negotiations for the mining code.

“We have a busy schedule in the coming two years,” Michael Lodge, secretary-general of the ISA, said in a press release, “but I am confident that our common purpose will enable us to make the expected progress.”

But while Lodge’s words imply a united front, observers present at the meetings suggest that the issue has been quite divisive, with some nations wanting to push forward with the mining code, and others wanting to slow the process down.

The Hidden Gem is currently being renovated in Rotterdam to be world’s first deep-sea mining vessel, even though the Canadian firm that will use the ship, The Metals Company (TMC), has yet to secure a license to exploit the seabed. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

To mine or not to mine?

In the late 19th century, the U.K. navy dredged the seabed in the Atlantic and discovered small, potato-sized rocks in their nets. These turned out to be polymetallic nodules: rock concretions rich in minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese. Since then, interest in deep seabed mining has grown by leaps and bounds. Not only are companies interested in polymetallic nodules, but also in the minerals found in hydrothermal vents and seamounts.

While these oceanographic structures are found in many ocean regions, prospective miners have focused their attention on one part of the ocean known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a 4.5-million-square-kilometer (1.7-million-square-mile) abyssal plain that stretches between Hawai‘i and Mexico and is known to be rich with polymetallic nodules. To date, the ISA has issued 18 exploration licenses to contractors wanting to exploit the CCZ for its nodules.

TMC, a company with three of those exploration licenses, says it’s necessary to mine the deep sea in order to procure enough minerals to make a necessary shift toward electric vehicles. On its website, TMC refers to nodules as “batteries in a rock,” and suggests that it can simply lift the nodules off the seafloor in a process “designed to minimize disturbance” and produce “near-zero solid waste.” TMC also says that deep seabed mining would be far less destructive than terrestrial mining, and even implies that it can help the oceans by mitigating the threat of climate change through its acquisition of the metals required for electric vehicle batteries.

The argument that deep-sea mining may be necessary for a green energy transition is supported by some academics, including Bramley Murton, a professor of marine geology at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, U.K.

“There’s a lot of potential benefits in terms of deep-sea mining versus terrestrial mining,” Murton told Mongabay in a video call. “And in terms of the technology, it’s very close to being viable.”

Murton said minerals in the deep sea are more readily available than minerals from terrestrial sources, and that mining the seabed may be the only way to support a swift green energy transition. He also suggests that deep-sea mining would impact an extremely small part of the marine environment and one that does not support “unique fauna.”

“The area of the seabed [in the CCZ] that is measurably impacted is 1/17,000th of the area of the Pacific Ocean floor,” he said. “I know that the Pacific Ocean floor has different environments, but nevertheless you might say, by analogy, if you went to a forest where there’s 17,000 trees and you cut one of those trees down as a logging exercise, would you realistically argue that you’ve destroyed the entire forest? I would argue that you haven’t, and this is kind of the comparison that needs to be made.”

A map of the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the central Pacific Ocean. Colored areas are those licensed for mining and shaded squares are areas currently protected from mining. Image adapted from the International Seabed Authority, 2018, courtesy of NOAA.

But other experts say it’s presumptuous to believe that deep-sea mining would not cause widespread harm to the marine environment. They argue that nodules, which take millions of years to form, provide critical habitats for an array of sea creatures, including jellyfish, octopuses and deep-sea corals. Removing the nodules could compromise these species’ survival, one study suggests.

A report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes the case that deep-sea mining would produce sediment plumes that could threaten the midwater ecosystem, a critical zone in the ocean that represents 90% of the Earth’s biosphere, supports a biomass of fish 100 times the annual global fish catch, regulates carbon, and even supports the pelagic food web through nutrient regeneration. It also says that dissolved metals from sediment plumes would likely contaminate the food chain and make it impossible for organisms to properly function.

Noise from deep-sea mining ships and machinery could also impact vast swathes of the ocean by disrupting marine animals’ abilities to find food, cause bodily harm or even kill them, according to a new report published by Swiss NGO OceanCare.

Perhaps most concerning to those who oppose deep-sea mining is the lack of scientific understanding of the deep sea and the potential impacts of exploitation. This has led many to call for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until knowledge gaps can be filled.

“We’re not ready for deep-sea mining, we don’t have science,” Farah Obaidullah, a campaigner at the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), told Mongabay in an interview at the IUCN Congress in September. “But the science we do have is pretty definitive that deep-sea mining should not go ahead because it’s going to affect the resilience of the deep ocean and have irreversible impacts to life in the deep ocean.”

Obaidullah says it’s not necessary to procure minerals from polymetallic nodules for renewable energy production since most, if not all, of the minerals are readily available on land, and different types of batteries are already being developed that do not require the minerals found in nodules.

Support for a moratorium is growing. A statement signed this year by 662 scientists from 44 countries recommends delaying deep-sea mining until “sufficient and robust scientific information has been obtained to make informed decisions as to whether deep-sea mining can be authorized without significant damage to the marine environment.” At the IUCN Congress that took place in Marseille, France, government ministries and agencies from 37 IUCN member states also voted in support of a moratorium. Large companies such as BMW Group, Volvo Group, Volkswagen, Google, Samsung, Philips, Scania, Patagonia as well as the European Parliament have also expressed their support for a moratorium.

A statement released by the Pacific Blue Line, a coalition of Pacific civil society activist groups, insists on an outright ban, calling deep-sea mining the “latest in a long list of destructive industries to be thrust into our sacred ocean.” At the time of this story being published, the statement had been signed by nearly 1,500 individuals and international organizations.

A meeting of the International Seabed Authority. Image courtesy of Kirsty McQuaid, DeepCCZ expedition.

What’s going on with the ISA?

 The ISA is the governing body that has the power to determine whether to allow deep-sea mining to proceed in the near future, or to delay its commencement. While the ISA was granted observer status at the U.N., it was set up in 1994 as an independent intergovernmental agency that allows it to function as an autonomous body. There are several parts to the ISA, including an assembly made up of 167 member states and the European Union, and a council composed of consumers, investors, exporters and representatives from developing nations. However, the ISA is led by the secretariat, which includes secretary-general Lodge and his administrative and technical staff.

According to UNCLOS, the ISA has a dual mandate: to give countries equal opportunity and access to mine the seabed, and to protect the marine environment from the harmful effects of deep-sea mining. Yet many experts say the ISA’s leadership holds favorable views of mining.

“What’s extraordinary about the ISA secretariat is they see themselves as purveyors of mining and there’s really an incredibly stark contrast with the rest of the U.N. world where [other] U.N. secretariats are scrupulously neutral,” Duncan Currie, an environmental lawyer who advises the DSCC, told Mongabay in a video interview. “Michael Lodge and his office and others don’t seem to feel the same obligation of impartiality.”

Currie said there are many instances in which Lodge has proved partial, but one notable example took place at a virtual hearing at the Belgian parliament in June 2020, when Lodge said that a deep seabed mining moratorium would be “anti-science, anti-knowledge, anti-development and anti-international law.” According to Currie, Lodge’s statement was “highly inappropriate” and Lodge was not following standards of conduct by voicing his convictions publicly and taking sides.

Lodge has also been criticized for promoting the interests of TMC, formerly known as DeepGreen, by appearing in a 2018 marketing video wearing a DeepGreen hard hat. (The video appears to have been made private now, but Lodge’s appearance was documented in a 2019 report published by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, London Mining Network and MiningWatch Canada.)

“From a governance point of view, this is really problematic,” Catherine Coumans, a deep-sea mining expert at MiningWatch Canada, told Mongabay in a video interview. “This is corporate capture that he’s completely unapologetic for and doesn’t even seem to understand how wrong that is.”

Mongabay contacted secretary-general Lodge for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Secretary-general Michael Lodge wearing a hard hat with the DeepGreen logo on it. Image by Michael Lodge on Twitter.

Is the ISA fit for purpose?

Coumans says there are fundamental issues with the composition of the ISA, especially when it comes to the Legal and Technical Commission (LTC), the branch of the ISA responsible for approving work plans and proposing technical and environmental regulations. For one, she said the LTC, which is made up of 30 members, has never installed an independent environmental assessment committee, despite multiple calls from scientists, civil servants and other experts to do so. The LTC also holds all meetings behind closed doors, approving work contracts in a “non-transparent way,” she said.

“When they [the LTC] review proposals, they review them behind closed doors, and the contracts that come out of those proposals — and they have allowed every proposal that companies [put] before them to go ahead, for as far as we know — are confidential,” Coumans said.

“That body is really the tail that’s swinging the dog for all of humanity with respect to the seabed,” she added, “and why they never want to create an independent environmental committee to represent the other part of the mandate, which is to protect the seabed, is really problematic.”

Andrew Friedman, a deep-sea mining expert at Pew Charitable Trusts, said most of the LTC members are civil servants who volunteer their services — and that this can be problematic in itself.

“I would question whether or not it’s possible to regulate an emerging industry, with all of your technical advice coming from a group of volunteers who meet twice a year, have substantial competing demands on their time, and aren’t compensated for the time and expertise that they’re providing,” Friedman told Mongabay in a video interview.

Harald Brekke, the current LTC chair and a senior geologist at the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, told Mongabay that the LTC is made up of legal, technical and scientific experts, including experts in environmental sciences. He added that when the LTC needs to make recommendations for protecting the marine environment, committee members “take into account the views of recognized experts” and even the public through organized workshops.

Brekke said he also disagreed that the LTC lacks transparency, pointing out that any recommendation made by the LTC is openly discussed at the ISA’s council meetings that are open to public consultation.

“The LTC makes recommendations and the Council, in open meetings, takes the decisions,” Brekke said in an email. “In my view, the submission to, and consideration by, the Council of the LTC recommendations is a fully transparent procedure.”

Several experts opposed to deep-sea mining say the ISA is “not fit for purpose,” not only because of the issues related to the LTC, but also because the ISA’s mission doesn’t reflect the needs of today’s society. For instance, Obaidullah said the ISA was established when there was less concern about meeting CO2 emission targets and halting biodiversity loss, which renders the ISA unfit to make decisions that could have far-reaching impacts on the world’s ability to curb the climate and biodiversity crises.

“It was developed in a time when we thought we could just keep exploiting resources and the world was infinite … but now governments know they need to halt the loss of biodiversity and we know we need to address the climate crisis,” she said. “So, if anything, the crisis that we face right now is showing us that the ISA is not fit for purpose and under such a situation, the ISA should not be allowed to authorize mining to proceed in the deep sea.”

Anna Zalik, associate professor in the school of environmental studies at York University, U.K., takes a slightly different view. She said the ISA could be fit for purpose if it adhered to its original mandate, which is to seek “redress from the global north for colonialism by ensuring that there would be redistribution of whatever resources were found in the seabed.” However, she added that the “interests of private finance and private firms” have ultimately shaped the structure of the ISA to what it is today.

Brekke of the LTC said he believes the ISA is fit for purpose in that it provides an “internationally agreed and binding framework for the proper and orderly management of the seabed resources of the international seabed area” and that it functions exactly as it should.

“I see no other mechanism than ISA by which 167 states around the world will accept and commit to a regime for such an orderly management of resources and environment of the deep ocean seabed,” he said.

A field of polymetallic nodules in the Pacific Ocean. Image by Philweb / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

‘Ambition to finish the mining code’

On Sept. 20, the ISA announced that it would be recommencing in-person meetings at its Kingston headquarters in December, after meetings in 2020 were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This came as a surprise to many, considering the rise in COVID-19 cases in Jamaica at the time and the complex web of international travel restrictions that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for all delegates to attend.

Arlo Hemphill, a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace and one of four observers who physically attended this year’s meetings, said he thinks the meetings were called at this time due to the ISA secretariat’s “ambition to finish the mining code.”

“It feels like it’s the ambition of the secretariat to have that be their legacy — that they completed the mining code and were able to launch this industry into the global ocean,” Hemphill told Mongabay in a video interview from Kingston. At the assembly meeting, Hemphill added, Lodge “made several pouty comments about how the ISA has a bad public perception and it’s not fair because they’re doing so much to help the world. Their examples of helping are putting young people from developing nations onto deep-sea mining exploration cruises and giving them experience in doing mining science.”

The rush to complete the mining code picked up speed in July when Nauru triggered the two-year rule, which could potentially lead the ISA to issue an exploitation license to NORI, a subsidiary of TMC, by July 2023, with whatever regulations are in place.

According to Coumans, Nauru likely triggered this rule on behalf of TMC as a business tactic. In September, DeepGreen merged with Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation (SOAC) to become TMC, and started trading on the Nasdaq Global Select Market.

“It’s pretty clear to me that [triggering the two-year rule] was meant to support the public offering and the share price,” Coumans said. “The fact that the rule had been triggered ended up in the [TMC’s] Securities Exchange Commission submissions as an argument that this is going to be a profitable company because they’ve now been given a two-year horizon in which these regulations have to be completed, or they can go ahead and mine without them.”

At the time of writing, TMC was trading at less than $2 per share, down more than 83% from its September price. This is due in large part to two pipe investors, Ramas Capital Management and Ethos Fund, failing to supply a promised $220 million financing package, according to MiningWatch Canada. TMC is now suing these two investors. But the company is also facing two shareholder litigations questioning its integrity.

A jellyfish seen during the Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas expedition on April 24, 2016, while exploring Enigma Seamount at a depth of ~3,700 meters. Image by NOAA.

‘Out of the bottle’

Hemphill said the ISA council meeting has polarized debate over pushing forward with the mining code.

“The authority itself and the mining champion companies are trying to push all of this through as quickly as possible,” Hemphill said. “While there is no moratorium champion as of yet, there’s a growing chorus of countries, saying, ‘Slow down, the mining code can’t be rushed. And when it’s completed, it needs to adequately protect the marine environment.’”

Matt Gianni, a political and policy adviser for the DSCC, who virtually attended this year’s ISA meetings as an observer, said Lodge is arguing that it’s necessary to approve regulations following the triggering of the two-year rule.

“He’s right in the sense that the Law of the Sea says if a country triggers two years … then states shall adopt regulations within two years, if they haven’t done so already,” Gianni told Mongabay in a phone interview. Yet he says there is additional language in UNCLOS that calls into question whether the ISA council is obliged to approve regulations that would allow mining to start within two years. “There are big ‘what ifs,’” he said.

Most member states appear to be in favor of pushing forward with deep-sea mining, according to the observers who attended the meetings. Other parties, including Germany, Costa Rica and China, questioned the integrity and feasibility of pushing forward with the mining code. What was ultimately decided at the end of the council meeting was to schedule an ambitious series of meetings next year to try and make progress with the negotiations.

“The good news is that countries basically asserted that they do not have to adopt these regulations within two years, by July 2023, in spite of the clear message from the secretary-general of the ISA, that countries are in effect under an obligation to do so under the Law of the Sea Convention,” Gianni said. “But the bad news is that they’ve agreed to an enhanced program of negotiation to try to adopt the regulations or to see if they can come to an agreement.”

Hemphill said he believes a final decision is likely to be made on or before July 2023 “if things continue to head in the direction they are now.” However, he added that Greenpeace plans to do a “lot of political lobbying” in the next 18 months to try and change the tide.

Currie said he doubts whether a decision can be reached, given the complexity of the situation and the disagreements between nations about the best way forward.

“From the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition’s point of view, we’ll continue pushing as hard as we possibly can for like-minded states to throw their weight behind a moratorium, and we’re very hopeful that by February [or] March, if not before, several states will come out and formally support a moratorium.”

If the ISA were to approve a set of regulations and issue its first exploitation license, Currie said he thinks it would open the floodgates, making it possible for an increasing number of countries to begin their own mining operations.

“It’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to put the genie back in the bottle,” he said, “once it’s out of the bottle.”

Citations:

Chin, A., & Hari, K. (2020). Predicting the impacts of mining of deep sea polymetallic nodules in the Pacific Ocean: A review of scientific literature. Deep Sea Mining Campaign and MiningWatch Canada. 

Drazen, J. C., Smith, C. R., Gjerde, K. M., Haddock, S. H., Carter, G. S., Choy, C. A., … Yamamoto, H. (2020). Opinion: Midwater ecosystems must be considered when evaluating environmental risks of deep-sea mining. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.2011914117

Martin, C., Weilgart, L., Amon, D. J., & Müller, J. (2021). Deep-Sea Mining: A noisy affair. Retrieved from OceanCare website: https://www.oceancare.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/DeepSeaMining_a-noisy-affair_report_OceanCare_2021.pdf

Miller, K. A., Thompson, K. F., Johnston, P., & Santillo, D. (2018). An overview of seabed mining including the current state of development, environmental impacts, and knowledge gaps. Frontiers in Marine Science, 4. doi:10.3389/fmars.2017.00418

Why the Rush? Seabed Mining in the Pacific Ocean. (2019). Retrieved from Deep Sea Mining Campaign, London Mining Network, Mining Watch Canada. website: http://www.deepseaminingoutofourdepth.org/wp-content/uploads/Why-the-Rush.pdf

Banner image caption: The dumbo octopus is a species only found in the deep sea. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2019 Southeastern U.S. Deep-sea Exploration.

Correction (12/17/2021): This article was corrected to say that BMW Group and Volvo Group supported the moratorium against deep-sea mining.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: deep sea biologist Diva Amon discusses what we know (and don’t) about biodiversity at the bottom of the ocean, listen here:

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