The future of off shore mining up for debate in Jamaica

July 11, 2023

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the United Nations body that oversees mining in international waters, began a two-week conference in Kingston, Jamaica to debate the future of offshore mining.

Two years ago, the tiny Pacific Island of Nauru made a formal request to the ISA for a commercial license to begin deep sea mining. Proponents argue that the sea floor is rich in the critical minerals needed for clean energy technologies and that deep sea mining is less destructive that surface mining. When Nauru requested the license it triggered a clause that put the ISA on a two-year countdown to consider the application, despite there being minimal regulations in place.

Since then, countries have been meeting regularly since to try and finalize the rules on environmental monitoring and sharing of royalties, but without success.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” said Juan José González, the authority’s council president.

The BBC reported that the authority has issued more than 30 exploration licenses but no provisional licenses — so far.

The debate on whether to allow companies to extract precious metals from the deep sea that are used in electric car batteries and other green technology comes as more than a dozen countries call for a ban or moratorium given environmental concerns.

Fox News reported that scientists have said that minerals in the deep sea take millions of years to form, and that mining could unleash noise, light and suffocating dust storms. However, companies have argued that deep sea mining is cheaper and has less of an impact than land mining.
Most of the current exploration is focused in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, which covers 1.7 million square miles between Hawaii and Mexico. It is occurring at depths ranging from 13,000 to 19,000 feet.

Prior to the conference, Canada announced that it supported a moratorium because there is no regulatory framework in place nor a deep understanding of the environmental impacts of deep sea mining.

“It is critical that the international community recognize its collective responsibility to safeguard the health and integrity of our shared global ocean for future generations,” the government said in a statement.

The 36-member council of the International Seabed Authority was expected to debate the issue on during the first week of the conference, but it was unclear when or if it would actually vote on whether to allow mining in deep international waters given sharp divisions over the issue.

"There’s really no appetite to vote," said Duncan Currie, an international and environmental lawyer and legal adviser to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, a Netherlands-based alliance of environmental groups.

Not all countries are opposed outright to the practice. The ISA has already issued 31 exploration contracts to companies wanting to research the deep ocean, and these have been sponsored by 14 countries including China, Russia, India, the UK, France and Japan.

And the ISA only permits contracts in international waters - countries are free to undertake exploration in their national waters. Last month Norway controversially opened areas in the Greenland Sea, the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea covering an area of 280,000 square km (108,000 square miles) for mining companies to apply for licenses.

The Metals Company, which is partnered with three Pacific Island nations - the Republic of Nauru, the Republic of Kiribati and the Kingdom of Tonga - is determined to press ahead with applications.

The company has said that the deep-sea offers a promising source of metals such as copper, cobalt and nickel needed for technologies such as mobile phones, wind turbines and EV batteries.

 Photo courtesy of the Metals Company


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