Deep-sea mining is being licensed at a far greater scale than any previous extractive activity by humans, and at a speed that does not allow for adequate assessment of its short-, medium- or long-term consequences for the environment. It is likely to have the largest footprint of any single human extractive activity on the planet.
Yet today we have the distinct advantage of being able to set a regulatory framework in place before the activity has begun – unlike any other environmentally damaging human activity (for example, deforestation and fisheries) where regulations have often been “after the fact”.
The international law-based framework for regulating deep-sea mining is contained in Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994. The Convention set up the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to regulate states’ deep-sea mining activities in all the seabed outside the continental shelves, which extend up to 350 nautical miles from land. UNCLOS declared this “Area” to be the “common heritage of mankind”, recognizing that it has value for and belongs to all humanity, including future generations.
The regime established for deep-seabed mining is highly complex. It is regulated by specific provisions in UNCLOS and its Part XI implementing agreement; by regulations being developed by the ISA; and by contracts entered into with the ISA.
The first step is for exploration licenses to be granted to enable companies to explore for minerals and assess their viability. These licenses will automatically convert to exploitation at the end of the agreed period, if they are viable.
The exploitation will be on an industrial scale and is expected to begin as early as 2018–2019. At the moment, regulations for the environmental control of the activity are still under discussion, in a process that allows only limited participation or even observation by civil society.
Some important procedures are entirely closed to observers. Furthermore, because compliance is seldom reported, it is difficult to ascertain how effective existing rules and regulations have been in meeting their objectives. Detailed information on mining is considered to be proprietary, and is not shared.
Scientists and NGOs are concerned that the process favors the interests of the mining industry, and will not impose sufficient safeguards on ventures with high ecological risks and potentially high economic returns.
Regulating deep-sea mining is far from simple. The Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone, for example, is 5,000 meters below the ocean surface and crosses political, geographic and disciplinary boundaries. And while the ISA has expanded the marine protected area network to cover 24% of the 6 million km2 that comprise the zone, the application of these protected areas in small blocks is in need of further study and development.
In addition, the ISA is tasked with ensuring that the benefits of deep-sea mining are shared with land-locked countries through a system of royalties and parallel mining arrangements, whereby each company or state conducting mining should exploit a parallel space on behalf of the ISA. None of these provisions is yet in place.
Although scientific exploration is continually advancing our knowledge of the deep ocean, it also reveals just how much there is still to discover and understand. Huge uncertainties make it difficult to predict the magnitude of consequences of human activity in the deep ocean. It is therefore vital that we proceed with extreme caution. The deep ocean is an essential force within the Earth system and must be protected from harm.
In general, our approach to the consumption of mineral resources should be one of sustainability, reuse, improved product design and recycling of existing materials as a priority over exploration for new sources of minerals, including in the deep sea.
If deep-sea mining is permitted to occur, it should not take place until appropriate and effective regulations for exploration and exploitation are in place to ensure that the full range of marine habitats, biodiversity and ecosystem functions are adequately and effectively protected, including through a network of marine protected areas and reserves.
The DSCC argues that wholesale commercial mining should be deferred until adequate conservation plans are in place, for the following reasons:
- Even after three decades of work, researchers continue to find new hydrothermal vents in remote locations, new species, adaptations, behaviors and microhabitats – some in well-known settings. There is still much to learn.
- There is no strategy in place to assess the cumulative impacts of mining. Mining one vent field may be comparable to a volcanic eruption or other natural process that can wipe out entire communities. The ability of a vent community to recover from mining events may depend on the events’ frequency as well as their scale. Moreover, scientists do not yet understand how vent systems re-populate, or anything about the complex dynamics of neighboring communities. The effect of continuous and cumulative mining operations may be very different from that of a single event.
- We still do not know how best to mitigate the impacts of mining activities or how to restore habitats in the deep sea. Efforts by mining companies during and after extraction could conceivably alleviate some concerns about cumulative effects. But exactly which measures will work, and be affordable, is still unknown.
- Measures for calculating and fairly allocating the economic costs and benefits of deep-sea mining activities are at best embryonic. If mining activities take off under the current system, there is a high likelihood that profits will accrue disproportionately to the countries and companies leading the charge, while costs and losses will be borne more broadly in a familiar “tragedy of the commons” scenario. This is likely to be to the detriment of developing countries.
The regulations and their framework must be robust and include:
- clear conservation and management objectives
- transparent and enforceable procedures including access to information, public participation and review procedures
- measures based on the precautionary and ecosystem approaches and the polluter pays principle
- publicly available, comprehensive, prior environmental impact assessments, based on extensive, high quality environmental baseline information and independent review procedures
- strategic environmental management plans with well-designed and resourced compliance and enforcement procedures
- liability provisions, insurance and bonds, a redress and liability fund, and a sustainability fund.
They should also ensure that significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems and ecologically or biologically significant areas are prevented and that other serious harm to the marine environment does not occur. Well-designed networks of protected areas must be established to achieve agreed objectives and cumulative impacts from mining and other activities and sectors must also be considered.
The development and adoption of any deep-sea mining exploration and exploitation regulations must be transparent and participatory. Any mining activities permitted thereafter must respect the common heritage of humankind and ensure real benefits to society as a whole.
Management must be effective, accountable and transparent with ongoing monitoring, compliance, enforcement and transparent review.
Learn more about the DSCC’s Call to Action.