Between Oct. 30 and Nov. 8, representatives of the 36 member states of the the International Seabed Authority (ISA) council met in Kingston, Jamaica, to work on a set of regulations that would govern how deep-sea mining activities could proceed.
Previously, at the ISA meetings that took place in July 2023, delegates agreed to try to finalize the regulations by July 2025.
However, observers say they believe the regulations are far from being complete, despite continued work on the text.
The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian firm that could be the first in the world to begin deep-sea mining, has indicated that it intends to submit an application for exploitation following the July 2024 meeting; if this application is approved, mining could start in the near future without regulations to govern this activity.
Commercial mining in the deep ocean is not yet a reality, but the possibility is on the horizon.
Delegates of the U.N.-affiliated deep-sea mining regulator, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), have been developing a set of regulations that would govern how miners could prospect, explore and exploit mineral resources on the seabed. More than two years ago, there was impetus to finalize the regulations by July 2023, but delegates failed to meet this deadline. Instead, ISA members agreed in July 2023 to try and finish the rules by July 2025, although this deadline isn’t binding.
Between Oct. 30 and Nov. 8, representatives of the 36 member states of the ISA council met in Kingston, Jamaica, to continue work on the rules. Discussions covered many parts of the regulatory text, including matters related to the inspection, compliance and enforcement of deep-sea mining; environmental provisions; financial issues; and the functioning of the ISA itself.
Michael Lodge, the ISA’s secretary-general, said in an online press briefing on Nov. 8 that he believed there was a “large measure of agreement” on most matters.
“We’ve actually made very good progress,” Lodge said. “Of course, there will be still some issues that will take some time to resolve.”
However, Matt Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), who attended the ISA meetings as an observer, interpreted the outcome differently. (The DSCC is a coalition of more than 100 groups that oppose deep-sea mining.)
“While they’re still moving forward [with developing the regulations], how much progress they’re making is hard to say because there are probably even more amendments now in the draft text than there were in July,” Gianni told Mongabay. “There are still lots of disagreements over many things, big and small.”
Gianni said that delegates pushed to accelerate the drafting of the regulations, but others opposed this idea.
Why mine the deep sea?
The argument for pursuing deep-sea mining pivots on the need for metals for the development of renewable energy technologies. The production of some electric car batteries, wind turbines and solar panels requires minerals like lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, copper and zinc. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based independent intergovernmental agency, the energy sector is driving demand for these critical minerals, including a tripling of overall demand for lithium, a 70% rise in demand for cobalt, and a 40% rise for nickel. The IEA further notes that any delays in clean energy projects could put the world at risk of failing to achieve a net-zero emissions scenario by 2050 — a necessary benchmark to avoid catastrophic human-induced climate change.
Enter the deep sea. Several deep-sea ecosystems, including abyssal plains, hydrothermal vents and seamounts, hold substantial quantities of these in-demand metals. Currently, most mining attention in the deep sea is focused on the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a 6-million-square-kilometer (2.3-million-square-mile) area of the ocean between Hawai‘i and Mexico, whose seafloor is scattered with billions of tons of polymetallic nodules — potato-sized rocks that hold metals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese.
In 2021, the Pacific island nation of Nauru, which sponsors Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of Canadian firm The Metals Company (TMC), triggered a “two-year rule” that urged the ISA to finalize its regulations by July 2023 or issue a exploitation license with whatever rules were in place by then. While the two years lapsed without the ISA finishing the regulations and without NORI applying for an exploitation license, TMC is still pushing for the start of deep-sea mining in the near future.
TMC, which is one of the biggest license holders in the CCZ, argues that mining the deep sea would be less destructive to biodiversity and less polluting to the environment than mining on land for the minerals it says are necessary for the energy transition. Additionally, the company says it has conducted extensive research to ensure that its proposed mining operations would cause minimal harm to the marine environment.
However, critics such as scientists, conservationists and activists say deep-sea mining would cause substantial damage to marine ecosystems, triggering a cascade of extinctions of species, many of which have not yet been identified by science. They argue that environmental damage wouldn’t be limited to mining sites, but that sediment waste, noise from machinery, and other forms of pollution would have wide-reaching impacts, harming organisms as small as larvae and as big as whales.
Those opposed to deep-sea mining also say deep-sea metals may not be necessary for renewable energy technologies. For instance, a report by the Blue Climate Initiative, a French Polynesia-based program of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, found that the next generation of electric car batteries won’t require cobalt, nickel or manganese, three of the most common metals found in the deep sea.
A new comment published in the journal npj Ocean Sustainabilityon Nov. 8, led by prominent ocean and fisheries economist Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia in Canada, argued that while deep-sea mining may give companies short-term profits, the long-term benefits would be minimal due to an eventual surplus of metals that would lead to a decrease in prices. It also noted that deep-sea mining companies’ profits would likely be impacted by “technological failures, unexpected expenditures, environmental hiccups, and litigation.”
As concerns mount around deep-sea mining, 23 countries have called for a moratorium or precautionary pause, the most recent of which was the United Kingdom on Oct. 30.
However, Corey McLachlan, TMC’s head of social performance and stakeholder relations, said these opposing countries get a “disproportionate [amount] of airtime.”
“It’s important to remember that 23 states that have expressed an opinion on that scale is a significant minority within those member states that are part of the ISA,” McLachlan said at an online press briefing on Nov. 2. “We have 169 [member states].”
When will deep-sea mining regulations be ready?
ISA members will recommence work on the mining regulations in March 2024. However, it remains unclear whether they will finalize the regulations by July 2025, the rough deadline set at the July 2023 meetings.
TMC announced in August that it intends to “submit an application to the ISA for an exploitation contract” following the July 2024 meeting of the ISA, which is about a year before the regulations might be finalized. If this happens and the ISA approves the application, TMC’s deep-sea mining operation could begin in the near future, possibly before there is a clear set of rules to govern this activity.
Gerard Barron, the CEO of TMC, has indicated that the company would prefer to wait until the ISA finalizes its regulations, but said it retains “the right to submit prior.”
“By delaying our submission until after the ISA’s July 2024 meeting, we are providing member states with space to finalise the regulations, while affording us more time to collect and bring together over a decades’ worth of data into a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement,” Barron told Mongabay in an emailed statement.
In the event that regulations were not finalized by next year, Barron said he believes the one-year review process that would follow the company’s submission would “provide additional time for the regulations to be adopted in 2025 as per the Council’s unanimously adopted roadmap.”
Anne-Sophie Roux, the deep-sea mining lead in Europe for the California-based nonprofit Sustainable Ocean Alliance, who also attended this month’s ISA meetings as an observer, said she believes TMC’s latest announcement is a move to “reassure investors” despite the regulations being “far away from being finished.”
“I think a lot of countries are getting more and more conscious of the fact that they need to be in the driver’s seat … and not TMC,” Roux added. “I think states are more and more uncomfortable about the fact that they are being pushed by TMC.”
Sumaila, U. R., Alam, L., Pradhoshini, K., Onifade, T. T., Karuaihe, S. T., Singh, P., … Flint, R. (2023). To engage in deep-sea mining or not to engage: What do full net cost analyses tell us? npj Ocean Sustainability, 2(1). doi:10.1038/s44183-023-00030-w