On the seafloor, anemones with eight-foot-long tentacles live alongside blind crabs that cultivate food in their arm hair, sharks with glow-in-the-dark bellies and glass sponges that have been thriving since before the invention of the wheel.
“Because of the lack of light and the fact that creatures do need to see each other to eat each other, you get these amazing photoluminescent animals down there,” said Helen Rosenbaum, the coordinator of the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, an association of nongovernmental organizations located in Australia, Canada, the United States and the Pacific Islands. “We’re just starting to discover them!”
The emerging industry of deep-sea mining is eyeing these otherworldly creatures’ home with keen financial interest: the potato-shaped rocks that provide a foothold for many of these animals in the otherwise silty, slippery environment of the ocean floor contain myriad metals that miners say are needed for a global eco-transition.
At the heart of primary decision-making on deep-sea mining ventures is the International Seabed Authority, an autonomous organization based in Jamaica that critics say has little public oversight. “Our journey is to drive humankind through a wonderful adventure, which is to go very deep in the ocean to extract some minerals that are necessary for human activity on earth,” says Marie Bourrel-McKinnon, a special assistant to the secretary-general of the Authority, in one of its promotional videos.
The ISA, which was established through the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is led by the idea of a “common heritage of mankind,” a phrase that is used to explain that the wealth of the ocean floor should belong to all of humanity. Michael Lodge, the Authority’s secretary-general, says in the same video that the ISA’s focus on equity and common resources is what makes the organization special. “This is something that has never been done before,” he says. “It’s actually a unique experiment in human civilization.”
Critics balk at the organization’s lack of transparency and worry that the humanitarian intentions behind the Law of the Sea treaty aren’t enough to ensure that the monetary benefits of the minerals on the seafloor will reach everyone. Some critics see an inherent contradiction in the Authority’s dual mandate to promote the development of deep-sea minerals while also protecting the environment.
King among the coveted metals is cobalt, a mineral used for batteries in phones, electric cars and other electronics. Other minerals include nickel, manganese and copper. On land, these minerals — particularly cobalt — are shrouded in controversy related to child slavery and the environmental impacts of terrestrial mining, but they’re also in high demand. Large companies like the Canadian-based Metals Company and the American-based Lockheed Martin see these metals as the key to transitioning away from fossil fuels and contend that procuring these metals from the deep sea is a cleaner, more ethical alternative to digging them on land.
“We’re on a quest for a more sustainable future, and we need metals to get there,” says Gerard Barron, chief executive of the Metals Company, in an advertisement for what was then called DeepGreen. “I don’t want to see more deforestation. I don’t want to see child labor. And I want to see us access the most sustainable supply of these important metals.”
But scientists warn that disturbing these slow-moving ecosystems could hurt the biological pump — a process through which the ocean sequesters a substantial amount of carbon — in ways that can’t be remedied within generations.
With the COP26 climate conference underway in Glasgow, Scotland, until Nov. 12, and the UN classifying the 2020s as the “Decade of Oceans,” leaders have been turning their eyes to the health of the seas and to the human activities that damage them. Peter Thomson, a Fijian diplomat and former president of the UN General Assembly who was president of the International Seabed Authority’s decision-making body twice, wrote an open letter calling for COP26 to devote attention to sustainability in the blue economy.
“What the ocean gives, it can take away,” Thomson writes. “While our understanding of the ocean’s properties is still limited, we know it is the planet’s largest carbon sink, so that closely protecting the special places within it has become urgent work at hand.” Thomson is also the UN’s envoy for the ocean.
Other diplomats and advocates have spoken to similar concerns, including Monaco’s Prince Albert II. “We still need to avoid overexploitation of the ocean’s natural resources and the ocean floor,” he says in an interview right before launching the most recent Because the Ocean initiative at COP26. “We cannot allow countries or large corporations to jump on every opportunity they see to exploit oil, gas or precious metal nodules protruding from the seabed without strict regulation.”
Some experts and scientists who have worked with the ISA warn that harvesting metals from the mostly untouched ecosystems in the seafloor holds as much potential for global ecological devastation as it does for profit. The Authority has so far sold 31 licenses for companies and governments to explore the bottom of the high seas and is being pressured by the small Pacific island nation of Nauru to authorize the beginning of mining operations within two years.
Observers, civil society members and former employees of the ISA are raising alarms about potential conflicts of interest in the organization and a lack of transparency surrounding funding for and profits from mining. PassBlue’s investigation into the ISA’s operations has involved interviewing eight scientists, researchers and lawyers familiar with deep-sea mining as well as four former ISA employees and scouring documents from the Authority, embassy cables, civil society reports, academic papers and from the UN Appeals Tribunal, which is hearing disputes from employees who have left the organization.
The portrait that emerges is of an organization with a vested interest in promoting the work of the underwater mining industry, a consistent habit of alienating international marine scientists whose findings favor a more cautious approach to exploiting the ocean floor and a lack of good-faith engagement with civil society.
“If you guys are the first to mine, the first to extract nodules from international waters, it’s opening oceans earthwide,” Adrian Hellman, an Australian environmental scientist, says in an ad for the Metals Company. “What happens initially is going to affect everything down the track.”
Although the push to speed up the start of undersea mining has been triggered by a two-year clause initiated by Nauru, it doesn’t mean that the Authority has to finalize the necessary legislation within two years, Duncan Currie of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition says. The group consists of more than 80 international organizations that promote the conservation of biodiversity in the high seas.
“Once regulations are adopted, the voting requirements make it extremely difficult to disapprove a mining application, so it’s likely numerous 30 year contracts will be approved,” Currie added in an email, noting that the contracts cannot be amended or canceled without the consent of the mining contractor. “Under the two-year rule, contracts can even be approved without regulations being in place. And it is likely they cannot be cancelled or amended without the contractor’s agreement.”
PassBlue published the first of its two-part investigation on the ISA on Sept. 29, focusing on the efforts by Nauru to trigger deep-sea mining licenses. A spokesperson for the ISA declined an interview on the topic after repeated requests from PassBlue.
Navigating with good intentions?
“A lot of idealists go into the International Seabed Authority thinking, ‘Oh wow, this is a place where there’s actually a statement about ensuring effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects of seabed mining, and making sure that all states can participate in these activities,'” says Kristina Gjerde, who represents the International Union for Conservation of Nature at ISA meetings. But she says that the Authority is led more by corporate interests than for “the benefit of all mankind,” the Authority’s stated goal.
“It’s difficult for states to put on their hats as representing the global community interests, as opposed to one particular economic sector or another,” Gjerde told PassBlue. “Now that interest in seabed minerals is rising, this gives rise to very serious concerns about potential conflicts of interest.”
The members of the ISA consist of 167 countries and the European Union. Formally, the organization is made up of five bodies: the Secretariat; the Assembly, where member countries are represented; the Council, elected by the Assembly; the Finance Committee; and the Legal and Technical Committee. The latter is tasked with making recommendations to the Council about approving legislation; together with the Secretariat, this committee is the most influential of the Authority’s organs. Longtime observers say that the Legal and Technical Committee has also never turned down an application for an exploration license.
Critics of the ISA, including former employees who spoke to PassBlue confidentially, point to its leadership and revenue structure as the source of many of its problems. When deep-sea mining may actually begin, the ISA plans to receive a cut of the profits from the mining operations to cover its operating expenses. Until then, the organization receives money in two ways: through sales of exploration licenses and member states’ voluntary donations or assessed contributions.
The ISA collects a $500,000 application fee for each exploration license that it grants as well as a yearly administrative fee of $47,000 per contractor doing the exploring, according to a 2019 presentation on the ISA’s payment regime. A 2020 report by the Finance Committee to the Authority’s Secretary-General Lodge expressed concern that many member states haven’t been paying their assessed contributions. Outstanding contributions currently total just over $1.1 million, representing more than a month of the organization’s yearly budget.
According to a former finance officer, who spoke to PassBlue but asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the information, the ISA depends heavily on the exploration license fees for its roughly $10 million annual operating budget. PassBlue has been unable to verify how much of the budget comes from contractor fees, as the Authority did not share audited financial statements after repeated requests to do so.
The ISA also has a track record of dismissing scientists or employees who raise concerns about the speed at which decisions surrounding deep-sea mining are being taken, several former employees and longtime observers to the organization said.
“I decided to speak out about the fact that, you know, we didn’t have enough science to be making informed decisions about how to manage this activity, unless the decision was not to proceed,” says Diva Amon, a marine biologist who received the ISA’s Award for Excellence in Deep Sea Research in 2018, referring to the writing of the Authority’s regulations around deep-sea mining. “That was when the relationship [with the Authority] switched.” Amon says she no longer gets invitations to the workshops that the ISA hosts on environmental management.
The workshops are one way that the ISA consults scientists to inform members of the Legal and Technical Committee on policy decision-making. But some scientists who attend the workshops question whether their advice is being heeded.
Pradeep Singh, a researcher at the University of Bremen, in Germany, who specializes in the Law of the Sea treaty, said that the reports on the workshops have gotten less substantive and sometimes fail to include the recommendations made by scientists at the gatherings. “If all this scientific input is not included in the workshop report,” he told PassBlue, “it won’t come to the attention of the Legal and Technical Committee.”
Singh also said the organization’s selection of scientists attending the meetings isn’t transparent. Sabine Christiansen, a senior researcher at the German-based Potsdam Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, agreed. She has been studying the ISA since 2001 and attending the organization’s meetings since 2009, and says that it has a tendency to invite mostly “like-minded” scientists, a sentiment that other observers have also echoed.
Who’s steering the ship?
The relationship between Lodge, the secretary-general of the Authority, and the Metals Company, the Canadian company that holds three of the 31 current exploration licenses, especially concerns critics of the ISA. Lodge sparked controversy when he tweeted a photo of himself in 2018, wearing a hard-hat branded DeepGreen, the previous name of the Metals Company, on one of its exploration cruises.
Lodge also represented the ISA in an ad for DeepGreen, where he said that mineral resources on Earth are dwindling and becoming more expensive and environmentally damaging to mine. Baron Divavesi Waqa, the president of Nauru from 2013 until 2019, is also featured in the ad as well as in Lodge’s tweeted photos of the deep-sea cruise.
Lodge is a British lawyer with a background in ocean law and fisheries management and has worked extensively in the South Pacific, where he was a lead negotiator for the 1995 Fish Stocks Agreement, part of the Law of the Sea treaty. He has been with the ISA as a legal counsel since 1996 and was elected secretary-general in 2016. He did not respond to repeated requests for an interview from PassBlue.
Christiansen of the Potsdam Institute says the climate at the ISA has become “less open” since Lodge’s election, citing less-thorough public reports.
The Metals Company has been the most active corporation pushing for deep-sea mining to begin. It holds an exploration contract sponsored by Nauru through a local subsidiary. Gerard Barron, chief executive of DeepGreen (and now heading its renamed Metals Company), represented Nauru at the ISA’s Assembly meeting in 2019.
In March 2021, the Metals Company released a $2.9 billion initial public offering stating that it would begin producing metals — and mining the ocean — as soon as 2024. Today, the company appears to be struggling, however, with one major investor suddenly pulling out his capital and a class-action lawsuit accusing the company of misleading information in documents for investors.
Lodge’s public statements on mining also raise questions about his commitment to protecting the environment when that work contradicts the interests of mining companies. Scientists, including the ISA awardee Diva Amon, have for years been calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining to give scientists and miners more time to understand its potential consequences and devise mitigation strategies. During a June 2020 hearing in Belgium’s parliament, Lodge said he had not heard a “powerful” call for a moratorium and called such an initiative “anti-science, anti-knowledge, anti-development and anti-international law.”
In September 2021, 81 governments, more than 500 civil society organizations and several multinational companies, including Google, jointly called for the moratorium. They also called on the ISA to improve its transparency and accountability.
Sharing the profits
The ISA was established “with this amazing principle as its fundamental legal basis to act on behalf of humankind,” Gjerde of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says. The ISA contends that it is committed to prioritizing the interests of developing nations through the financial and economic frameworks that it writes for the exploitation of the riches that lie at the ocean floor.
Though the US is not a party to the Law of the Sea treaty, American organizations still have influence over the ISA. Through subsidiaries, the weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin holds two exploration contracts. The ISA also relies heavily on research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its economic predictions. A leaked US embassy cable from 2005 describes the involvement of the US in the Authority’s meetings, noting that the choice of an “acceptable” candidate to succeed then-secretary-general Satya Nandan would be an issue that the US would “want to address in the near future.”
The 31 exploration licenses that the Authority has sold so far are held by a total of 23 governments, nationally owned entities and private companies. Seven of the contracts are set aside as “reserved areas,” which are donated by wealthy countries and meant to benefit developing countries. A closer look at the complex web of the parties involved with the exploration licenses, however, raises questions as to whether the mechanism is working as intended.
“Sponsoring states need to think carefully, because if they fail to exercise due diligence and the company causes environmental damage because of that, they can be held liable,” Gjerde says, paraphrasing an advisory opinion of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
Of the contracts reserved for developing countries, three are owned by the Metals Company; one is a Chinese state company; one is a joint venture among Lockheed Martin, the Singaporean conglomerate Keppel and an investment company whose ownership is unknown; one is a joint venture between the Cooks Islands government and the Belgian dredging company DEME; and one is Blue Minerals Jamaica, of which little is known except its association with Peter Henrik Jantzen, a Dane.
Indeed, as pressure increases for the Authority to speed up the process of allowing the mining of the deep sea, it remains an obscure body with little public oversight. The next meetings for the ISA Council and the Assembly, postponed last year due to the Covid crisis, are planned for December.
“We have all these other activities in the high seas,” Christiansen of the Potsdam institute says. “The ISA is adding new pressures on the ocean, and nobody’s looking.”
This article is the final half of PassBlue’s two-part investigation into the Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority. The first article, published on Sept. 29, 2021, reported on pressures facing the Authority to allow undersea mining to begin and how profits are supposed to be shared by such ventures among relevant parties.
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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.