The international community is allegedly facing a significant shortage of minerals on land. It is reported that the shortage of “critical minerals…threatens to jeopardize the low-carbon transition and destabilize global energy security…” In search of alternatives, governments are now exploring the potential of deep-sea mining. In brief, deep-sea mining is the process of vacuuming the ocean floor forpolymetallic nodules. It is believed these nodules have the ability to power technology such as cell phones, computers, and electric cars. What is not clear and is hotly debated are theconsequences of removing these minerals from the ocean floor. Advocates of deep-sea mining argue that this is a great response to solvingclimate change. Those who take the middle-of-the-road approach argue that a moratorium should take placeuntil scientific research is conducted and safety parameters are in place. Strict opponents of deep-sea mining argue that the ocean, which represents the earth’s largest carbon sink will be destroyed and “suffer irreversible losses” thereby mitigating any benefits it may have had in addressing climate change. In fact, research indicates that deep-sea mining “disrupts and releases carbon stored in seafloor sediments, exacerbating the effects of climate change.”  Climate change already has a significant impact on the oceans and theirdelicate ecosystems. Deep-sea mining will alsoexacerbate food security for countries that depend on fish stock for the needs of communities that depend on the ocean for their sustenance.
The deep-sea bed and its resources are considered part of the “common heritage of [human]kind” per the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). All parties to UNCLOS are members of the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The ISA’s mandate, prescribed by UNCLOS, is to “organize and control all mineral-related” activity in the international seabed area. Currently, the ISA has only developed Exploration Regulations which govern prospecting forpolymetallicnodules, polymetallicsulphide, andcobalt crusts. Till date there are no regulations for the exploitation of mineral resources from the seabed. However, the nation of Nauru announced in 2021 its intention to begin exploiting resources in the ocean, invoking the notice provision, referred to as the “two-year rule” contained in UNCLOS. This now gives the ISA an extremely quick turnaround time to develop and finish theMining Code, where negotiations have been delayed since 2020 due to COVID-19. The ISA appearsill-equipped to handle the pressure it is under to properly evaluate and complete the Mining Code before Nauru, through The Metals Company (Canada) begins exploitation.
In response to the current activities of the ISA, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed aResolution in 2021 calling for a moratorium on deep seabed mining including stopping any issuance of new exploitation and exploration contracts until certain conditions are met. Those conditions are 1) impact assessment of all risks associated with deep seabed mining, 2) implementation of the precautionary principle, 3) policies and practices that ensure responsible mining, 4) creation of public consultation mechanisms. In addition, the Resolution asks for reform of the ISA.
While governments now race to create and manage ocean-related projects for bio-prospecting, with an eye towards exploitation, Papua New Guinea serves as acautionary tale on deep-sea mining. Around 2011, Papua New Guinea contracted with Nautilus Minerals (Canada) to begin deep-sea mining within a 5-year timeframe. Nautilus claimed that no one “seriously challenged” the projections made in theirenvironmental impact statement. The ore that would have been mined from the ocean floor was planned to be sold directly to China.Human Rights Defenders and Environmentalists questioned the outcome of the environmental impact statement, arguing thatfree, prior, and informed consent among local communities was lacking and that there was no benefit to local communities. In the endprotests from the communities, delayed payments, and internal financial woes caused the project led by Nautilus – to sink. Although the project was in the exploratory phase until Nautilus’s bankruptcy in 2019, local communities have reported the machines used for exploration “damaged sea life and disrupted cultural practices.” The noise from the machines also scared away fish stock that the local communities depended on for food security. In addition to the damage caused to communities, the Government of Papua New Guinea was left with an approximate $120 – 150-million-dollar debt as a result of the failed contract. In 2019, the Government of Papua New Guinea (now wiser) joined the Governments of Fiji and Vanuatu in aten-year moratorium on seabed mining in their waters to allow for “proper scientific research” to be conducted. Activists in Papua New Guinea are still concerned the licenses for the project, now held byNautilus Minerals Niugini, could become activated.
While the debate around deep-sea mining continues to unfold in different parts of the world, UNESCO has launched the “Ocean Decade” a decade-long (2021 – 2030) program to increase public awareness about the world’s oceans. The first UN Ocean Conference will be held in Lisbon, Portugal during the summer of 2022 (rescheduled previously due to the pandemic).Some researchers believe the dialogues taking place throughout the globe for the Ocean Decade may usher in further discussions as to how to protect our oceans and place limits on sea mining. The Government of Fiji has called upon all governments to impose a completemoratorium on deep-sea mining until 2030. This would be consistent with the research and dialogue that is supposed to take place throughout the Ocean Decade. Corporations are also starting to back the moratorium.AB Volvo, Google, BMW, and Samsung have backed the moratorium on deep-sea mining in addition to committing not to source minerals and exclude them from their supply chains.
Whether any tangible results occur from discussions within the Ocean Decade to prevent deep-sea mining remains to be seen. There are still many experts that argue that we have an amplesupply of minerals on land and minerals from the ocean floor will not fit with current technology. The international community’s poor planning and ill-conceived ideas to rush to transition to green energy have resulted in poor planning and technology which have violated human rights and caused significant damage to the environment. A moratorium should be imposed until there is appropriate scientific-based information. Without proper research of the true impact deep-sea mining will have on our oceans, we will likely accelerate and worsen the impacts of climate change – the very outcome we are trying to avoid.
All views represent the opinion of the author and should not be attributed to any other organization.
About the Author
Ms. Regina M. Paulose is an International Criminal Law Attorney.
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Preferred Method of Citation
Regina M. Paulose, “Deep-Sea Mining in the Shadows of the Ocean Decade” (IJPIEL, 15 June 2022)
 Deborah Rowan Wright, Future Sea, The University of Chicago Press, 103, (2020)