The ISA, established by the U.N. as an intergovernmental authority under the ocean law treaty of 1994, has the exclusive mandate to regulate the exploration and exploitation of deep seabed minerals beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, that is, on the high seas beyond the outer limits of the environmental shelf, comprising two-thirds of the world’s oceans.
Proponents include Russia and China. They argue that the ocean floor is rich with critical minerals— nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese — and mining these minerals is needed in light of the increasing demand for such metals for electric vehicle batteries. It is estimated that 21 billion tons of minerals lie in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone east of Hawaii at 4,000 to 5,000 meters depth. Also, they assert that seabed mining is less harmful and destructive to the environment than land mining as currently done in several countries.
The Pacific Island of Nauru has sponsored the Metals Company, a Canadian mining startup, which is seeking the first license for industrialized mining. The company has already completed exploration trials having retrieved more than 3,000 tons of nodules from a depth of more than 2.5 miles. The Metals Company CEO, Gerard Barron, has said that he is ready to submit their application and will be prepared for industrial-scale mining.
The opponents include almost two dozen countries such as Germany, France, and Costa Rica. More than 30 companies including Google, Samsung, BMW, and Volkswagen have pledged not to finance seabed mining or use materials from seabed mining in their supply chains. Several banks including Lloyds have declined to do business with deep sea mining entities and many have demanded a moratorium on these practices.
Those opposing deep sea mining contend that it could have catastrophic consequences for the marine environment, as it might damage the ecosystems that scientists have yet to fully explore and understand. Although there is little research on sea life at the bottom of the ocean, available data does show that as huge machines rip up the ocean seafloor, creatures would be covered with sediment, causing irreparable harm.
Although major opposition to deep sea mining is on environmental grounds, some voices are now being heard that even technologically and financially, it is not a sound idea. Victor Vescovo, a private equity investor and deep-sea diver, who has explored the deepest points in all five oceans, is highly critical of the Metals Company. He considers it extraordinarily challenging to operate complex machinery in corrosive saltwater with thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch. He doesn’t think that the financial math will work.
It is a pity that the U.S. is not a party to the ocean law treaty. Consequently, it is not at the table and cannot participate. However, several U.S. states including Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington, have banned seabed mining in their waters. And recently, U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, introduced two bills in the House: one, calling for a seabed mining moratorium in American waters, and the other for a moratorium internationally.
The delay in finalizing the regulatory framework by the ISA must be welcomed, for otherwise industrial-scale mining on the sea floor would have taken place by default. Until the regulations which include those regarding the environmental consequences of such mining, and taxes that contractors must pay are finalized, even if it takes more than two years, the ISA must not issue any license. The precautionary approach demands that there be no mining without such regulations.
And if science tells us that environmental consequences warrant no seabed mining at all, the ISA must heed the warning.