Deep-sea Mining in the International Seabed Area: A Potential  Gold Mine  or Irreparable Harm?
Photo: Reuters.

In 2021, the Republic of Nauru notified the International Seabed Authority (ISA) of its intention to apply for the approval of a plan for deep-sea mining in the international seabed area (the Area) of the Pacific Ocean. On 9 July 2021, the notification began to take effect. According to the Agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI of UNCLOS, ISA has to finalize and adopt a set of regulations for managing deep-sea mining in the Area within the following two years (also known as the "two-year rule"). If the set of regulations is not completed by 9 July 2023, ISA will still have to "consider" and "provisionally approve" requests for deep-sea mining from all countries.
The ISA Council’s meeting in March 2023 (the last in-person meeting of the Council before the deadline of 9 July 2023) has shed some light on the prospects of deep-sea mining, with plans to approve requests for mining after this deadline. However, this decision is not official, as ISA members have yet to reach a consensus. The Council will continue to hold virtual meetings until the deadline and may consider extending the two-year deadline.
Regarding this issue, some notable viewpoints can be summarized as follows:
1) Supporting views
Countries supporting deep-sea mining (like China, Nauru, Tonga, Russia, South Korea, and India) believe that this activity is necessary. Firstly, the demand for metals will continue to rise while the supply will gradually decline. Secondly, the majority of global metal reserves are currently possessed by only a handful of countries, making the supply unreliable. Thirdly, minerals obtained from seabed mining can provide countries with new sources of revenue, which have the potential to solve financial and economic challenges arising from the pandemic.
Furthermore, deep-sea mining can promote sustainable development. This is the future trend because the minerals here will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide resources for the clean energy industry, including battery storage. Countries are transitioning from gas-fueled vehicles to electric ones, resulting in a high demand for cobalt, nickel, and other metals, which are required to produce high-energy-density batteries. Additionally, in principle, the financial and other economic benefits derived from deep-sea mining activities in the Area must be shared equitably among all countries by ISA on a non-discriminatory basis, in accordance with UNCLOS. This is because the Area and its resources are the common heritage of humankind. Therefore, less developed countries with limited technological capability can also benefit from deep-sea mining by sponsoring corporations with the needed technology and financial capacity.
2) Opposing views
Many environmental NGOs (for example, Greenpeace, Environmental Justice Foundation) oppose this activity. According to Greenpeace, only a few European and North American corporations dominate the nickel and cobalt mining industry. These corporations sometimes even speak on behalf of governments at meetings held within the framework of ISA. Therefore, if deep-sea mining is greenlighted, environmental management will become more complicated, and ISA will have difficulty ensuring equity in sharing the benefits of deep-sea mining among its members.
Leaders from countries, such as France, Canada, and Chile, have expressed concerns about the current lack of understanding of the seabed environment. Due to this, they claim that ISA needs sufficient data to ensure safe and effective seabed mining. New Zealand has repeatedly rejected proposals to mine the seabed within its national jurisdiction because mining will adversely affect the environment and the interests of indigenous people. According to a report from the United Nations Environment Program, the environmental impacts of seabed mining are detrimental, and many consequences are irreversible. Noises and vibrations generated by mining machinery will disrupt marine creatures' habitats, and alter the water's chemical properties.
3) Vietnam’s position
During the 26th session of the ISA Assembly in 2021, Vietnam asked ISA to prioritize completing and adopting the set of regulations for managing deep-sea mining. Vietnam stated that the regulations must be in accordance with UNCLOS, specifically with relevant provisions regarding the principle of the common heritage of mankind, equitable treatment, protection of the marine environment, and regard for the special interests and needs of developing countries.
The article is originally published here
Ngan Ha