Among the council’s 36 member states, Germany, France, Spain, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Chile, Panama, Fiji and the Federated States of Micronesia last week called for a “precautionary pause” or moratorium on mining due to a lack of scientific data on the mining industry Exploitation designated areas of the seabed. On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a total ban on deep-sea mining at COP27 in Egypt. Meanwhile, Brazil, the Netherlands, Portugal, Singapore, Switzerland and other council members also said they would not approve mining contracts until adequate environmental protection for unique deep-sea ecosystems is in place, regardless of the July deadline.
However, some nations, including the UK and Norway, expressed confidence that the regulations could be finalized by the deadline. China warned against “going it alone to focus on environmental protection.”
“Given the amount of work that still lies ahead of us … the likelihood that the regulations, standards and guidelines will be finalized by July 2023 is close to zero,” Ambassador Hugo Verbist, head of the Belgian delegation, told the council on Friday. “Uncertainty, especially legal uncertainty, is the last thing you need in deep-sea mining. The stakes for humanity are too high.”
Panamanian Representative Roger R. González told the council on Monday that his country “would not support any system that takes protection of the marine environment to a second level.”
“We must ensure that future generations are not harmed,” he added. “We need to make decisions based on science and have a clear vision of our intergenerational responsibilities.”
A comprehensive review of available research on areas of the deep sea targeted for exploitation, published in Marine Policy in March, concluded that a lack of scientific knowledge about these ecosystems precludes effective mining management. The paper’s authors included prominent scientists and four members of the ISA committee that writes mining regulations.
Mining companies have argued that deep-sea mining will have less environmental impact than terrestrial mining and is necessary to provide the metals for electric car batteries and other green technologies needed to combat climate change.
Pradeep Singh, a marine policy scholar at the University of Bremen in Germany who studies the ISA, said the organization’s charter requires the council’s 36 member states to reach consensus to approve mining regulations. “The existence of a formal objection would result in a deadlock,” Singh said in an email. He is attending the council meeting as a representative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an accredited ISA observer.
The ISA, which has 167 member states and the European Union, was established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1994 to regulate mining in international waters while ensuring the protection of the marine environment. For the past 21 years, ISA has awarded exploration contracts to government-sponsored companies, government agencies and private companies to prospect for minerals on more than 500,000 square miles of seabed in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Every mining entrepreneur must be sponsored by an ISA member state, which is responsible for environmental compliance.
Increasing resistance from ISA member states to accelerated regulation comes as research by Bloomberg Green, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times has uncovered the proximity of the ISA Secretariat, the organization’s administrative arm, to the mining companies regulated by the agency the influence that some of these companies exert on small Pacific island nations that sponsor their contracts.
Up until last year, the ISA Council had been slowly negotiating regulations that would allow for the dismantling. Then, in June 2021, Nauru, a Pacific island nation of 8,000 people, triggered a provision in the Law of the Sea treaty that requires the ISA to complete the regulations within two years.
Nauru is a sponsor of a subsidiary of The Metals Company, a Canadian registered company formerly known as DeepGreen which also holds mining contracts sponsored by two other small Pacific island nations. If the ISA does not approve the rules by July 2023, it may have to pre-approve The Metals Company’s application for a mining license under environmental protection measures in place at that time. Nauru triggered the two-year rule after The Metals Company told potential investors that it expects to start mining in 2024, according to U.S. securities filings. Metals Company shares closed at 85 cents on Friday.
The Company recently completed a test mining operation in a region of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. It sent a robot more than 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) under the sea to collect 3,600 tons of polymetallic nodules, potato-sized rocks rich in cobalt, nickel and other minerals. The nodules, which scientists estimate are home to half of the larger species in the CCZ, were transported through a riser pipe to a surface vessel.
At a council meeting in July, some nations objected to The Metals Company’s environmental management plan for the test mine, with Germany saying it “contained only rudimentary environmental data”. The plan was revised and ISA Secretary General Michael Lodge informed the mining company that mining could proceed.
The United States is not a member of the ISA, having not ratified the Convention on the Law of the Sea, but the country attends the organization’s meetings as an observer. US Delegate Gregory O’Brien told the council on Friday: “It is hard to imagine how there would be action to ensure effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects of mining by July 2023.
“The Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf of the United States are immediately adjacent to the Clarion-Clipperton Zone,” he said. “A wide range of interests, including those of our indigenous communities that depend on an accessible and sustainable marine environment, can potentially be directly affected by adverse impacts and impacts from exploitative activities.”
France was even more hostile to the 2023 deadline. “France does not adhere to any timeframe, including the two-year rule,” Ambassador Olivier Guyonvarch told the council. “No exploitation contract can be approved by the authority as long as the legal framework that adequately protects the environment is not in place.”
In a phone interview from Jamaica, Matthew Gianni, a longtime ISA observer and founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, said last week made it clear that a growing number of countries without strong environmental protection measures would not vote to approve mining contracts after July 2023 regulations.
“It’s becoming increasingly obvious that states are moving towards conservation and science,” said Gianni, whose Amsterdam-based alliance represents more than 100 environmental groups and other nongovernmental organizations.
(by Todd Woody)