The gloves come off – 31/3/22

Date: 31 March 2022

We’ve reached the penultimate day of International Seabed Authority (ISA) negotiations, as the Authority seeks to rush through discussions on how to regulate a looming extractive industry threatening the farthest reaches of our ocean: deep-sea mining. As this session nears its end, the DSCC and other NGOs continue to call for a moratorium on this destructive practice that would leave permanent scars on the seabed and cause wide scale damage in areas far beyond the areas directly mined.

The day kicked off with a plenary meeting, during which we heard reports from working groups covering key issues: payment regimes, environmental protection, compliance and enforcement and institutional matters.

The facilitator of the working group on payment regimes presented the main conclusions of the discussions, which included commissioning a study on the environmental costs of deep-sea mining that would seek to put a price on deep sea life and ecosystem services. This proposal came as a result of the concern expressed by many States about the fact that a previous financial report commissioned by the ISA failed to account for anything to do with the environment, despite the fact that central to the Authority’s mandate is protection of the marine environment from the environmental impacts of any deep-sea mining. 

The deep sea provides huge value to all of us. Not only is it the biggest habitat on earth, supporting a rich web of life, but it plays a key role in carbon storage, nutrient regeneration, the provision of harvestable fish stocks and is a potential source of new medicines. Many of the benefits we derive from it also have no monetary basis, including its cultural and intrinsic value. This begs the question – how can we accurately quantify the many values the deep sea provides to humankind?

NOAA: Voyage To Inner Space – Exploring the Seas

The environmental working group report highlighted concerns about the lack of comprehensive, independent scientific information available on deep-sea ecosystems and the fact that it is not possible to compare the predicted impacts of deep-sea mining to an accurate baseline were the industry to go ahead. The DSCC, DOSI and numerous states have continued to highlight throughout negotiations that this is a key reason why deep-sea mining cannot go ahead. An extractive industry that forges ahead with such profound knowledge gaps would be nothing short of profit-driven recklessness. The facilitator of the working group invited delegations to review a proposal submitted by New Zealand, Chile and Costa Rica attempting to set an accurate baseline against which impacts of the proposed industry could be measured.  Fiji’s Dr Raijeli Taga said that “It is a challenge and an opportunity to contribute to the protection of the marine environment and ensure that we leave this environment in a better state than we found it in.” The only way to truly protect the deep from the predicted irreversible impacts of the industry, is to prohibit it altogether.

The environmental working group report also noted the many calls for increased emphasis on stakeholder participation and for traditional and local knowledge to be taken into account – an issue spearheaded by FSM throughout negotiations, supported by DSCC, the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI), and a number of States.

The summary of the compliance and enforcement working group included proposals for remote monitoring systems. As pointed out by the DSCC in previous discussions, these systems would be all but meaningless, as they can only monitor the surface ship and can easily be turned off. There is currently no available technology capable of tracking what would really be happening in the depths as miners strip-mine the seafloor.

Finally, we heard from the facilitators of the working group on institutional matters. This is the working group that will be tackling the transparency and process issues that are currently deeply embedded in the ISA. These include a severe lack of independent scientific advice; a voting structure that is biased in favor of granting mining contracts, and a conflicting mandate – the Authority is charged with both protecting the marine environment and also regulating an activity that we know will cause long term and irreversible damage. The DSCC have pointed out throughout negotiations that the ISA is not fit for purpose.

We also highlighted the dangers of trying to develop regulations for all types of mining – nodules (abyssal plains), cobalt crusts (seamounts) and sulphides (hydrothermal vents). This is a fundamental flaw and once again highlights the dangers of rushing through the development of these regulations.  The proposed exploration regulations fail to separately address each of the 3 types (and indeed primarily focus on nodule mining), and as we all know, the physical, biological, environmental and other aspects of the 3 different types of mining are very different.

The day ended with a telling intervention from Nauru, a sponsoring State of would-be mining company Nauru Ocean Resources Inc.,  parented by The Metals Company, based in Canada. They cited the need to “overhaul energy and transportation systems…for a Net Zero future” and stated that they “believe that metallic nodules can be an answer to this problem and can be collected in an environmentally sustainable manner”. 

The DSCC commented that deep-sea mining is a false solution to the climate crisis, due to the guaranteed impacts on biodiversity and the risks it poses to the world’s largest carbon sink. We contested that metals are not needed for electric vehicles, pointing to the fact that battery technology is already moving away from the use of deep-sea minerals, such as nickel and cobalt. We simply quoted the words of TMC, made to the Securities and Exchange Commission:

“Impacts on CCZ [Clarion Clipperton Zone] biodiversity may never be completely and definitively known. For the same reasons, it may also not be possible to determine whether the impact of nodule collection on global biodiversity will be less significant than those estimated for land-based mining for a similar amount of produced metal… It is unknown how effective mitigation strategies can prevent potential biodiversity loss and species extinctions.”

The Metals Company – submitted to the US Securities and Exchange Commission as part of their environmental impact and feasibility statements

We added that the discussions we have had this session show very clearly that the regulations, as well as standards and guidelines, are nowhere near ready. The fundamental flaws with the institutional structures and functions of the ISA also demonstrate that the Authority is not fit to regulate what could become the world’s largest extractive industry if allowed to go ahead. Adoption of the regulations in just over a year from now is a misguided and dangerous aim. It would signal the commencement of deep-sea mining, and would be irreversible. 

Deep-sea mining cannot be considered part of a sustainable economy and therefore fails to align with wider international commitments. The only safe solution is a moratorium. 

Notable interventions

  • Environmental working group facilitator, Dr. Taga, described deep-sea mining as “a challenge and an opportunity to contribute to the protection of the marine environment and ensure that we leave this environment in a better state than we found it in.”
  • The president of the Council stated they “will make every effort to ensure the thorough and timely development of the regulations and claimed that necessary standards and guidelines should be developed in parallel with the regulations as a package.”
  • Germany noted that the lack of environmental thresholds is not only true for DSM but for many contexts when developing initial thresholds for marine protection, for example, in the European coastal seas, stating that in these cases we should be guided by the precautionary principle and adaptive management.

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