- On Nov. 8, French President Emmanuel Macron became the first head of state to call for a complete ban on deep-sea mining, an activity that would extract industrial quantities of minerals from the seabed in international waters in the near future.
- Delegates of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) are currently meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, to discuss deep-sea mining regulations, and many member states are using this forum to express their concerns about mining going ahead.
- In June 2021, the Pacific island nation of Nauru, which sponsors Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of Canadian firm The Metals Company (TMC), triggered a “two-year rule” that could force the ISA to allow mining to go ahead in two years with whatever regulations are in place.
On Nov. 7, French President Emmanuel Macron announced at the COP27 climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, that France is calling for a complete ban on deep-sea mining. This marks the first time a head of state has directly called for an outright ban on this activity that would extract industrial quantities of minerals from the seabed in international waters.
Macron’s statement comes at a time of heightened scrutiny into deep-sea mining. Delegates of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the multinational organization tasked with overseeing deep-sea mining, are currently meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, to discuss mining regulations, and many member states are using this forum to voice their opinions and concerns.
Costa Rica, Chile, Germany, France, Spain and Panama have all called for a “precautionary pause” on deep-sea mining due to a lack of scientific data about its potential impacts and insufficient regulations to protect the environment. Last month, New Zealand also announced that it would support a “conditional moratorium” until the ISA has implemented environmental rules backed by “robust science.” At the U.N. Ocean Conference earlier this year in Lisbon, Palau also launched an alliance of nations calling for a moratorium against deep-sea mining, which Fiji, Samoa and Micronesia subsequently joined.
Delegates from other countries, including Canada, Brazil, Portugal, the Netherlands, Singapore and Switzerland, made various statements at the current ISA meetings to the effect that deep-sea mining shouldn’t go ahead without sufficient research and regulations. On the other hand, nations like Norway, South Africa, Australia, Japan and India have expressed a desire to continue working on the rules so that mining can commence.
Hervé Berville, the French minister of marine affairs, said Macron’s statement represents the official position of France, and that Macron hopes other countries will follow its lead.
“[Macron] really got the conviction that we should simply refuse any license of exploitation and … we should go further than just a moratorium because a moratorium can be used as an excuse to move forward on the legal framework and to start deep-sea mining in 2023,” Berville told Mongabay.
“We will not support any kind of exploitation and any work to try to [move forward with] exploitation with a legal framework,” he added.
Members of civil society have welcomed Macron’s announcement, which builds on his previous statement at the U.N. Ocean Conference that he supports the creation of a legal framework to stop deep-sea mining in marine areas beyond national jurisdictions.
“We welcome Macron’s call for a prohibition on deep-sea mining in international waters,” Joey Tau of the Pacific Network on Globalisation, currently attending the ISA meetings in Kingston, told Mongabay. He said the statement is “very timely given that the International Seabed Authority is currently working on draft regulations for exploitation.”
François Chartier, an ocean campaigner at Greenpeace France, called Macron’s announcement “good news,” but only if actions followed his words.
“France joins Pacific nations, scientists, civil society organisations and other governments that have been actively looking for ways to ensure that deep sea mining is not allowed to start,” Chartier said in a statement. “France could be a true leader in the protection of oceans by actively working with other nations to stop deep sea mining.”
ISA delegates have been under pressure to finalize mining regulations ever since the Pacific island nation of Nauru, which sponsors Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of Canadian firm The Metals Company (TMC), triggered a “two-year rule” found in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in June 2021. This rule would theoretically require the ISA to allow mining to go ahead in two years with whatever regulations are in place by then. In December 2021, the ISA scheduled a series of meetings to comply with this deadline, but many state delegates have become increasingly dissatisfied with this time limit.
While the ISA has not yet issued any exploitation licenses, NORI recently completed a mining test run in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean. According to a press release, TMC said that NORI used a pilot collector vehicle to collect 14 metric tons of polymetallic nodules across 150 meters (nearly 500 feet) of the seafloor in a 60-minute trial.
Polymetallic nodules are potato-shaped rocks containing minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese, which mining proponents say are a much cleaner source than land-based mines of the metals needed for renewable energy and electric technologies. But critics of deep-sea mining, which include scientists, conservationists and other experts, say this activity would cause irreparable damage to marine ecosystems, and that seabed minerals are not necessary for green technologies.
Some Pacific island nations, including Nauru, Tonga, Kiribati and the Cook Islands, are sponsoring mining contractors and generally supporting deep-sea mining for the financial benefits it could potentially bring their economies. Yet, other Pacific island nations say that deep-sea mining will not deliver economic benefits and could endanger the marine resources they rely on. For instance, in Papua New Guinea, a failed mining operation left the government with millions of dollars in debt and an altered ecosystem devoid of sharks.
“I think for Pacific people, impacts on our ocean has been a long-standing issue, one being the nuclear testing legacy that continues to impact our people,” Tau said. “We depend heavily on the ocean for its fisheries [and] in terms of our cultural practices with the ocean, but these are [at risk] should deep-sea mining go ahead.”
Mining opponents said they were surprised that the ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission (LTC) had approved NORI’s pilot trial without first consulting ISA council members, and raised fears that the trial would pave the way for mining exploitation to proceed, despite concerns about the safety and necessity of doing so. Recent investigations by The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times have cast doubt on whether the ISA is fit to regulate deep-sea mining, by suggesting that the intergovernmental body has conflicts of interest and that its decisions are skewed in favor of mining companies.
The ISA has not indicated that work on the mining code will cease, but civil society members say they’re hopeful that change is imminent, especially after Macron’s announcement.
“There’s very clear momentum and pushback that continues to grow almost every single day that we’re here,” Arlo Hemphill, a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace who is also attending the ISA meetings as an observer, told Mongabay. “More and more countries [are] just putting their foot down.”
Correction: This article was revised to say that Macron made his statement on Nov. 7, not Nov. 8.
Banner image: French President Emmanuel Macron at the COP27 climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Image courtesy of Sky News.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
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