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Deep-sea mining rules delayed two more years; mining start remains unclear

Sea fan in the deep ocean.

Marine life in the deep ocean. Image courtesy of NOAA.

  • Member states of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) are currently meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, to discuss the future of deep-sea mining in international waters.
  • These current meetings were highly anticipated because they coincided with the expiration of a rule that could have enabled deep-sea mining to start in the near future.
  • On July 21, nations intensely negotiated an agreement to finalize regulations for deep-sea mining by July 2025, although this timeline is not legally binding.
  • While companies can now technically apply for mining licenses, experts say the new agreement may make it more difficult for these to be approved before the mining regulations are finalized.

KINGSTON, Jamaica — On July 21, nations reached an agreement that will make it more difficult for deep-sea mining to start immediately in international waters, while not fully halting the industry’s progress.

For the past two weeks, council members of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN-affiliated deep-sea mining regulator, have been meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, to negotiate a set of rules that would govern seabed mining in international waters. This proposed activity would excavate the ocean floor for commercially valuable minerals, which proponents say are needed for renewable technologies, such as electric-vehicle batteries. Yet, critics say deep-sea mining is unnecessary for mineral procurement and would cause widespread and far-reaching damage to marine ecosystems that sustain life on Earth. While deep-sea mining has not begun anywhere in the world, mining companies have invested large sums of money into technology development and launched mining exploration missions into the deep sea. 

These meetings were highly anticipated because they coincided with the expiration of a so-called two-year rule that had the potential to jump-start deep-sea mining on the high seas, the vast tracts of ocean beyond national jurisdictions. In 2021, the tiny Pacific island of Nauru activated this rule embedded in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea to encourage the ISA to adopt mining regulations by July 9, 2023, or to allow mining to begin with whatever rules were in place at the time. The Metals Company (NASDAQ: TMC), a corporation whose subsidiary Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI) is sponsored by Nauru, previously told Mongabay that it intended to submit a mining application this year with a view of starting operations in 2024. This makes TMC a front-runner among several companies seeking to mine the deep sea. 

Delegates of the International Seabed Authority meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, in July 2023. Image by ISBA HQ.

The mining regulations — often referred to as the “mining code” — will stipulate the procedures for prospecting, exploring and exploiting mineral resources with the aim of ensuring the protection of the marine environment. But with these mining regulations far from complete, delegates to the ISA council — the organization’s 36-member-state policymaking body — agreed on a new target for finalizing the rules: July 2025. However, this agreement is not legally binding, said Pradeep Singh, a fellow at the Research Institute for Sustainability in Potsdam, Germany, and a member of the IUCN delegation to the ISA.

“I call it an aspirational timeline at most,” Singh told Mongabay. “It doesn’t bind states to adopting [the regulations].”

Singh said an eventual adoption of regulations would need consensus among all 36 states. “One objection is enough to put the whole process on hold,” he said.

While the timeline for the regulations has been pushed back, the expiration of the two-year rule technically allows mining companies to submit a mining license application at any time. However, experts say the new agreement will make it more difficult for any mining license application to be approved because it gives the council direct input into the process. Without this change, the license approval process would have been at the sole discretion of the ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission, an advisory body elected by the council.

Council members negotiated the agreement during closed-door sessions that extended late into the evening on Friday before they eventually reached a consensus.

Margo Deiye, the permanent representative of the Nauru Mission to the United Nations and the ISA, expressed her frustration with the decision to the assembled delegates, saying that her delegation would have preferred a stronger commitment to finishing the regulations.

Gina Guillen-Grillo, Costa Rica’s director general for foreign policy and head of her country’s delegation at the ISA, said that during the negotiation process, some countries pushed for a strong legal commitment to adopt regulations by the July 2025 deadline, while others, including Costa Rica, opposed such a move in favor of the softer timeline.

Delegates to the ISA council negotiated an agreement to finalize regulations for deep-sea mining by July 2025. Image by NOAA.

In July 2022, Costa Rica called for a “precautionary pause” on deep-sea mining. Several other countries, among them Canada, Chile, France, New Zealand and Palau, have also demanded a pause, moratorium or ban on the activity.

“I think it was a good balance because it says we intend to continue the elaboration [of the regulations],” Guillen-Grillo told Mongabay. “It’s aspirational, but [if] we don’t finish, there’s no problem. We didn’t want something that binds us because, first of all, we don’t think we’re going to finish. And second of all, we don’t want to be liable for committing to something that we know we’re not going to finish.”

Guillen-Grillo said she believes what is currently needed is an investment in research to understand the deep sea and the impacts of future mining.

“It’s not fair just to say we don’t have the science — we need to go for the science,” Guillen-Grillo said. “Costa Rica has proposed several times that we need to have scientific research strategies with scientists that are not just the [mining industry] contractors, but other independent scientists.”

“Unless we have the science, we cannot know if what we’re doing is bound to destroy the common heritage and the ocean and life as we know it,” she added. 

While the new agreement has pressed the pause button on deep-sea mining by postponing the mining rules, TMC said in a statement on its website that it “applauded” the decision.

“It is now a question of when — rather than if — commercial-scale nodule collection will begin,” said Gerard Barron, the CEO of TMC, referring to the potato-size mineral clumps many companies are aiming to extract from the sea floor.

“We are obviously disappointed that the ISA failed to adopt RRPs [rules, regulations and procedures] by 9 July 2023 as we hoped two years ago,” he said. “But we also recognize that the vast majority of Member States worked very hard in the last 24 months and demonstrated strong continued commitment to finalizing the Mining Code through [an] increased number of formal sessions and twelve informal intersessional working groups. I believe the finish line is now within sight and we look forward to the consolidated regulatory text at the next meeting in November 2023.”

A sea cucumber (Psychropotes longicauda) inhabits a deep sea abyssal plain dotted with polymetallic nodules. These are some of the several billion metric tons of recoverable nodules estimated to lie in the Clarion–Clipperton Fracture Zone. © Lenaick LEP

TMC did not respond to Mongabay’s request for an additional interview. The company also did not indicate whether it still planned to submit a mining license application in the near future. 

Following the ISA’s failure to adopt regulations, TMC’s NASDAQ stock tumbled. The company has previously received several written notices for possible delisting on the Nasdaq Stock Market LLC for poor performance.

Other companies, including Belgian company Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), which is part of the DEME group, and Norwegian companies Green Minerals and Loke, are also looking to mine in international waters once rules and regulations are in place.

Tore Halvorsen, the CTO of Loke who attended the ISA meetings as part of the UK delegation, told Mongabay he believes “the regulations will come when the regulations come.”

“This is a very thorough process, and I don’t think you can accelerate that process … because there are still outstanding items to agree upon,” Halvorsen said. “But it’s an extremely constructive set of input from the delegates from each country, so we are impressed with the thoroughness that these rules are being reviewed.”

Louisa Casson, Greenpeace’s lead campaigner on deep-sea mining, said the recent agreement has sustained a “state of uncertainty” around the future of deep-sea mining. She said her team is also anticipating the possibility of TMC submitting a mining license application now that the two-year rule has expired.

“We have to be prepared for that risk because they still have the legal ability to do so,” Casson told Mongabay. “Looking at their financials, there is a huge question of how long they can wait … because obviously, they aren’t making any money, they will only be able to start making money if they can start deep-sea mining … but I can expect a lot of resistance politically, as well as socially if they do so.”

Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that the decision was reached on July 22 instead of July 21. We regret this error.

Banner image caption: Marine life in the deep ocean. Image courtesy of NOAA.

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

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