A civil society perspective on drafting environmental regulations for deep-sea mining

20 March 2017

The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) is a coalition of over 70 member organizations many of whom are grappling with the issue of deep-sea mining. The position of the DSCC currently is that the consumption of mineral resources should be based on sustainability, reuse, improved product design and recycling of materials rather than exploring for new sources of minerals, including in the deep-sea. And while some proponents of deep-sea mining argue that it is needed to provide sufficient metals to transition to a renewable energy economy, a report released last year concluded that even the most ambitious scenario - a transition to a 100% renewable energy economy by 2050 - can be done without sourcing supplies of metals such as copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium, silver, tellurium and rare earth metals from deep-sea.[1]

If deep-sea mining is permitted to occur, the DSCC position is that the full range of marine habitats, biodiversity and ecosystem functions need to be adequately and effectively protected, including through MPAs/APEIs, regional environment management plans, robust and adequate baseline information, using the precautionary approach, applying the polluter pays principle, and establishing a liability fund and a sustainability fund, amongst other measures.[2] The ISA must become much more transparent, particularly the ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission, and an environment committee is needed. However, even with the best regulations in place, many NGOs have major concerns as to whether deep-sea mining can ever be managed for minimal environmental impact given the uncertainties over biodiversity and ecosystem function in the deep-sea, the difficulties in monitoring impacts of mining activities, and the potential for long-term and irreversible harm. Additional concerns center on whether the political, institutional and financial structures can be put into place to ensure effective monitoring of mining activities and compliance with environmental regulations.

A lot is at stake. The UN’s 1st World Ocean Assessment in 2015 states that the deep-sea “constitutes the largest source of species and ecosystem diversity on Earth” which supports the diverse ecosystem processes and functions necessary for the Earth’s natural systems to function and yet is already under threat from multiple stressors.[3] And States have committed, in Sustainable Development Goal 14.2, to sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems by 2020 to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans.[4] The question remains an open question: Can deep seabed mining be compatible with these concerns and environmental and sustainable development objectives?

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[1] Teske, S., Florin, N., Dominish, E. & Giurco, D. 2016, Renewable Energy and Deep Sea Mining: Supply, Demand and Scenarios. University of Technology Sydney https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/handle/10453/67336

[2] See summary of the DSCC position at http://www.savethehighseas.org/deep-sea-mining/dscc-asks.cfm and the detailed DSCC position put forward at the 2015 meeting of the International Seabed Authority at http://www.savethehighseas.org/publicdocs/DSCC-Briefing-21st-Session-International-Seabed-Authority-July-2015.pdf

[3] UN World Oceans Assessment. 2015. Chapter 36F. Open Ocean and Deep-Sea. http://www.worldoceanassessment.org/?page_id=14

[4] http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/oceans/