Conn Nugent, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ seabed mining project, hosted the RNRF Washington Round Table on Public Policy on September 6. He spoke about current preparations for international deep seabed mining and Pew’s work to advance responsible seabed mining regulatory frameworks. Pew seabed mining project officer Winnie Roberts also contributed to the round table with professional insights about the technological and regulatory issues. Representatives from Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund-US, American Fisheries Society, Oceana, Geological Society of America and American Water Resources Association participated in discussions.
There is no current mining activity on the deep seafloor anywhere in international waters. Historically, deep sea mining offered more risk than reward for potential operators, but as technology advances, extraction on land becomes more costly, and certain rare earth minerals become more critical to modern technology, deep sea mining approaches inevitability.
Waters outside of the 200 nautical mile band of a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are broadly governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is the treaty organization within UNCLOS that regulates seabed and mineral activity in these international waters. The ISA will write rules that will govern the exploitation of the seabed, including how revenues from resource extraction will be shared. UNCLOS language refers to the seabed, ocean floor, and subsoil of international waters as the “common heritage of mankind,” but there is significant contention among nations as to how these resources should be shared.
Nugent observed that there are currently no American NGOs participating in any major advocacy or scientific capacity in ISA discussions, in part because of the U.S.’s failure to ratify UNCLOS. The U.S.’s relative absence in the seabed governance debate is illustrated by the fact that U.S. delegates observe debates but do not publicly comment. Despite many unknowns in the policy and scientific realm of international seabed mining, prominent American environmental groups have been slow to take up the cause. There also is uncertainty about what, or to whom, they should be advocating.
Pew is an exception, and is using its ability to convene scientific and regulatory experts to provide the best available analyses to ISA during its framework-drafting process. However, as Nugent observed, scientific expertise on mining the deep seafloor, or even just on deep seafloor ecology, is sparse. ISA has no internal capacity to conduct scientific and economic analyses of the impacts of mining the deep seafloor, and there is a tremendous need for more data. While some general information can be gleaned from near-shore seabed mining and petroleum extraction, the challenges of extracting resources on the deep sea floor in international waters are utterly unique and have never been attempted before. Critical research to inform best practices is expensive to conduct, necessitating specialized ships and equipment that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day to operate. Most research so far has come from commercial interests in preparation for potential future exploitation. Non-industry funders are scarce and limited mostly to some universities and governments. The costs of regulating and monitoring mining activities for environmental impacts will also be enormous. It is unclear how or in what way such monitoring will take place.
The specific mineral resources on the deep sea floor are not found in shallower waters. These are polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulfides, and the mineral-rich crust of some underwater mountains, which occupy the first few centimeters of the ocean floor. While there is no doubt that mining damages ecosystems, much of the understanding of to what extent ecosystems could be impacted by gathering these resources directly, or the plumes of debris such extraction would create, is unknown. This is why Pew has been urging a strong precautionary approach to deep sea mining, and suggesting that at least 50% of possible mining area be reserved for conservation.
The ISA is working to approve exploitation guidance. Some contractors, including a Belgian company, have expressed an interest in applying for exploitation licenses as soon as possible, which means mining operations could begin as soon as 7-10 years after the rules are adopted. In the meantime, far more work needs to be done gathering scientific information and outlining conservative, cautious guidelines to extracting these novel resources on this largely unexplored and little understood terrain.
(Photo by W. Cordua)