A wealth of resources lies beneath international waters, including cobalt, copper, manganese and other minerals used to power smart phones and other technology. Safeguarding “the common heritage of mankind,” as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea terms this vast store, is a regulatory body called the International Seabed Authority, or ISA.
A quarter-century after its launch, the Kingston, Jamaica-based organization is being pressured to finalize rules that will allow companies to start unearthing the minerals. Scientists, lawmakers, environmentalists and other experts warn that rushing this complicated process could lead to irreparable damage to some of the world’s largest ecosystems.
At the end of June, Nauru, a small island nation in the Pacific, triggered what’s known as the “two-year clause” — a crucial provision in the authority’s founding legislation — giving countries the power to demand that the processing of mining permits begin within two years.
“We’re already seeing warnings from scientists that deep-sea mining risks inevitable and irreversible harm,” said Louisa Casson, a senior political strategist at GreenPeace International. “We know that our oceans are already in a state of crisis.”
During a September World Conservation Congress held by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a public-private membership organization, 81 of 127 governments and almost 600 nonprofit groups voted in favor of halting deep-sea mining activity until more is known about its potential consequences and until policies are devised to mitigate harm. The motion also calls for a reform of the ISA to “to ensure transparent, accountable, inclusive, effective and environmentally responsible decision-making and regulation.” Some large companies like Google and BMW have also signed on to the moratorium.
The ocean floor has never been mined, and scientists worry that this new type of extraction could devastate fragile, unexplored ecosystems. To gather manganese, copper, cobalt and nickel, “collectors” — large bulldozer-like machines — would rake up the top few inches of the ocean floor and shoot the sediment some 3,000 to 4,000 meters to the surface, where it could be sifted for “nodules,” potato-sized rocks that contain the minerals. The remaining material, a sludge packed with heavy metals, would be piped back into the ocean, where it would be released and eventually sink to the floor.
“There’s no doubt that all of the life on the [affected] sea floor will be destroyed,” said Duncan Currie, a lawyer with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an international network of more than 80 nongovernmental organizations, fishery groups and policy institutes. The sediment kicked up by the collectors alone would be enough to smother much of the life on the deep seabed, but the biggest risk, Currie explained in a phone interview, would come from discharging the sludge roughly 1,200 meters below the surface, “so nowhere near the sea floor,” he said, adding, “It’ll be effectively a toxic plume” that could travel over 1,400 kilometers and remain in the ocean for more than a year, threatening the lives of fish, squid and marine mammals.
The ISA has not responded to a request for comment or an interview about the proposed legislation or other questions about the organization and deep-sea mining.
Health, wealth and redistribution: a delicate balance
Balancing the health of the world’s oceans with the potential economic benefits of mining is one of the ISA’s biggest challenges. Moreover, the authority has a mandate to ensure deep-sea mining helps reduce inequalities among developed and developing states.
“This was supposed to be an economic enterprise that was to lift states from poverty,” said Kristina Gjerde, who represents the International Union for the Conservation of Nature at the UN and the ISA, referring to the latter. Indeed, the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, which created the authority, states that it would “tak[e] into particular consideration the interests and needs of developing states and peoples who have not attained full independence” when deciding how to mandate profit-sharing from deep-sea mining.
Almost 40 years later, the logistics for this distribution remain a big unknown and an enduring source of tension among ISA members. Some 167 countries, among them China and Russia, but not the United States, and the European Union signed on to the Law of the Sea treaty. The authority is led by Secretary-General Michael Lodge, a British lawyer who has worked as a consultant in the international fishing industry. The US maintains observer status to the authority.
What’s clear is that the profits will be split among member states, sponsoring states, the authority itself and the company undertaking the mining. What’s unclear — a source of disagreement that will be challenging to resolve within the 2023 likely deadline triggered by Nauru — is what the split will look like and how it will be enforced.
A report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology describes the delicate balance that the authority must strike as it comes up with a payment formula. If undersea mining is going to work, it must be profitable enough for the mining companies to justify the sizable costs of underwater work. At the same time, it must also pay for the authority’s expenses and provide enough income to member states and sponsoring states, like Nauru, to justify the potential damage. Finally, some relevant parties are calling for the creation of an environmental fund that would pay for any needed restoration of the ocean floor.
The African regional group in the ISA — 47 countries, comprising almost a quarter of its members — has been one of the most vocal opponents of the primary financial model under consideration. One letter from a representative of the African Group implores the ISA to ensure “deep-sea mining only ever occurs if there is substantial compensation to mankind” and not to design the payment regime “as if the overarching goal . . . is to ensure deep-sea mining is not inhibited.”
Calls for transparency and accountability
To ensure that deep-sea mining would benefit developing states, the ISA reserved certain parts of the ocean for mining only by those countries and the companies they sponsor. But the relationship between commercial enterprises that would do the mining and the countries that back up their license applications raises questions about where the benefits will actually go.
“I think the original intention was that [the companies] would in fact be driven by developing states,” and that those sponsoring underwater mining companies would receive a cut of the profits, Gjerde told PassBlue. In reality, “it’s really unclear who has effective control over what.”
Greenpeace’s Casson, who wrote a recent report on the companies that hold licenses for deep-sea exploration, said: “We know that there’s only really a handful of governments who are really pushing deep-sea mining. It’s become increasingly clear that those kinds of governments are working, most of them, very closely with private sector contractors. And when you track the ownership of various subsidiaries or partnership agreements, it comes back most of the time to these three parent companies”: the Vancouver-based Metals Company, the Belgian company DEME and the American corporation Lockheed Martin.
If small nations like Nauru can’t keep a strong grip on the contractors they sponsor, they run large risks: They may be held liable for ecological damage caused by the mining venture and the cost of restoration.
The Metals Company published a response to the report authored by Casson and her team, in which it argued that small island developing states like Nauru would not be able to “participate in the benefits of this new resource opportunity.”
Watchers of the ISA also ask who exactly the authority is accountable to. Its relationship to the UN is important but indirect: Though it was created under the Law of the Sea treaty, the ISA remains an autonomous body and collaborates with UN divisions on a case-by-case basis. This makes it unclear who the authority must report to in its work.
The authority holds an observer status at the UN and has “a lot of support coming from the Division for Ocean Affairs,” said Pradeep Arjan Singh, a researcher at the University of Bremen in Germany who specializes in the Law of the Sea. (The Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea are part of the UN Office of Legal Affairs.)
“While the ISA has made effort in some respects to align with the UN, one aspect that has been left out is accountability,” Singh wrote in an email. The ISA is answerable not to the UN but to the State Parties to the Law of the Sea, which meet annually but have “no clear means for complaints or grievances.”
The authority hasn’t met in person since before the pandemic hit, and it’s unclear when its next session will occur. Gerard Barron, chief executive of the Metals Company, has said that the company aims to begin “shipping product to customers in 2024,” referring to deep-sea mining extraction. ISA’s Lodge has told the BBC that he expects mining to begin in 2026.
Meanwhile, the moratorium that was voted on earlier this month at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which was backed by countries, public interest groups and major companies, is a sign of just how much work the ISA has ahead of it to reach diplomatic consensus — and its goals for the common heritage of mankind, as the Convention on the Law of the Sea puts it.
This article is the first in a series by PassBlue investigating the International Seabed Authority.
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Anna Bianca Roach is a Simon and June Li Center for Global Journalism Fellow who focuses on climate reporting. She has worked in Canada, Armenia and the United States and is a native speaker of English, French and Italian. She has an M.S. in investigating reporting from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in conflict studies from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She has written for OpenDemocracy, The Washington Post and Deutsche Welle.