Negotiations on the future of deep-sea mining are due to begin again in December. But are we any closer to actual extraction of minerals from the ocean floor?
What is deep-sea mining?
It’s the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the deep-sea floor. This is the area more than 200 metres below sea level. It covers around 65% of the planet and harbours a rich diversity of species adapted to the harsh environment, many still unknown to science. It also encompasses unique geological features, including mountain ranges, plateaus, volcanic peaks, canyons, vast abyssal plains and the Mariana Trench, which at almost 11,000 metres is the greatest depth registered in the ocean.
Is mining taking place now?
Shallow-water mining for sand, tin and diamonds is already happening around the world, and some deep-sea mining has taken place within the territorial waters of certain countries. But deep-sea mining in international waters that belong to no one nation, but to the “common heritage of mankind”, is currently only at the exploration stage.
To date, 31 contracts to explore for 15 years have been granted to assess the size and extent of three different types of mineral deposits in areas totalling more than 1 million square kilometres. Actual mining cannot begin there until “the code” is agreed.
What is the code and who decides it?
The code is the entire body of rules, regulations and procedures that will govern the exploitation of minerals in international waters. It is being developed by The International Seabed Authority (ISA), an independent organisation based in Kingston, Jamaica. The ISA was established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and has 167 member states plus the EU.
When is the code expected to be finalised?
Negotiations on the code are set to resume in early December 2021 after being delayed due to Covid. The original deadline was 2020, but the slow progress of the ISA has frustrated industry and led some parties to take action. In June, the small island state of Nauru invoked a never-before-used rule that compels the ISA to allow mining to proceed within two years under whatever regulations are in place at that time. In July, a group of African nations called finalising the code by that mid-2023 deadline a “seemingly insurmountable” challenge. In October, several Latin American and Caribbean countries also said the code will take longer to finalise, and that delegations remained far from in agreement on key issues. A request by Chile to postpone the early December meeting was rejected, with the ISA secretary-general, Michael Lodge, saying it was “both necessary and urgent”.
Who is exploring?
A mix of corporate enterprises, state-owned companies and several governments, including China, France, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the Interoceanmetal Joint Organisation (a consortium of Bulgaria, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Russian Federation and Slovakia), as well as small island states such as the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Singapore and Tonga.
What are they exploring for and where?
Nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc, silver and gold are some of the targets of proposed mining activities. Current exploration is focused on three types of marine mineral deposits: polymetallic nodules found lying on the seafloor; polymetallic sulphides, or “seafloor massive sulphides”, which form around hydrothermal vents; and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts that cover seamounts. Exploration zones are mainly in the Pacific, mid-Atlantic and Indian oceans.