MAC: Mines and Communities

Deep Sea Mining rules debated ... while proposed project sinks

Published by MAC on 2018-07-19
Source: Statements, News Deeply

The United Nations' International Seabed Authority has been meeting this week to draft regulations governing the deep sea mining in international waters.

Since 2001, the ISA has issued 15-year contracts that give 29 corporations and state-backed companies exclusive rights to explore 1.3 million square km. Yet it is still working on the regulations to ensure this is done in a way which will allegedly not damage an environment that is not fully understood. The agreement of the regulations should open up these areas to full exploitation. The fact that at least 2 of those contractors have not complied with their exploration conditions, but appear not to have been penalised, should surely give at least some cause for concern. 

The IUCN is one of a number of organisations to note that the regulations are insufficient to prevent irrevocable damage to marine ecosystems and a loss of unique species. Their report on the issue can be downloaded at:

Meanwhile, one of the few companies to be pushing ahead with potential seabed mining in national waters - Nautilus Minerals - continues to face legal opposition from potentially affected communities in Papua New Guinea, despite the company attempting to tell its shareholders the case has been dropped (which it most certainly hasn't!).

Previous article on MAC: Nautilus Minerals AGM: Deep Sea Mining company sinking in deep water

Draft mining regulations insufficient to protect the deep sea – IUCN report

16 July 2018

Regulations under development at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to manage deep-sea mining are insufficient to prevent irrevocable damage to marine ecosystems and a loss of unique species – many yet to be discovered, an IUCN report warns.

The report, Deep seabed mining: a rising environmental challenge, provides a comprehensive overview of deep-sea mining and its potential environmental impacts. The report was launched today, coinciding with the 24th session of the ISA, whose aim is to agree on a ‘mining code’ to regulate the exploitation of the deep seabed.

According to the report, an effective regulatory framework is needed to avoid lasting harm to the marine environment, based on high-quality environmental impact assessments and mitigation strategies. These, in turn, must be based on comprehensive baseline studies to improve the understanding of the deep sea, which remains understudied and poorly understood.

The mining code currently under development lacks sufficient knowledge of the deep sea and a thorough assessment of environmental impacts of mining operations that are necessary to ensure effective protection of deep-sea life, according to IUCN experts.

“We are operating in the dark,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme. “Our current understanding of the deep sea does not allow us to effectively protect marine life from mining operations. And yet, exploration contracts are being granted even for those areas that host highly unique species. Exploitation of minerals using current technologies could potentially destroy the rich deep-sea life forever, benefitting only a few, and disregarding future generations.”

There is growing commercial interest in deep-sea mineral deposits as a result of projected rising demand for copper, aluminium, cobalt and other metals. These resources are used to produce high-tech applications, such as smartphones, and green technologies, such as electric storage batteries.

Though there is little empirical evidence of the impacts of deep-sea mining, the potential impacts are worrying. These include direct physical damage to marine habitats due to the scraping of the ocean floor by machines – similar to clearcutting a forest – and the stirring up of fine sediments on the seafloor that can smother animals and cloud the water. Additional impacts include toxic pollution due to leaks and spills, noise, vibrations and light pollution from mining equipment and surface vessels.

By May 2018, the ISA – which has the dual mandate of promoting the development of deep-sea minerals whilst ensuring that this development is not harmful to the environment – had issued 29 contracts for the exploration of the deep sea. Commercial mining in international waters is expected to begin no earlier than 2025. Exploratory mining in the national waters of Japan started in 2017, and commercial mining is predicted to occur in Papua New Guinea by 2020.

“With regulations for commercial deep-sea mining currently under development, we are facing a unique window of opportunity to ensure that potential impacts of these operations are properly assessed, understood and publically discussed,” says Kristina Gjerde, IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme senior advisor on the high seas. “Stringent precautionary measures to protect the marine environment should be a core part of any mining regulations, yet these remain missing in action. In addition to this, the ISA’s challenging and conflicting mandate will require improved oversight by the international community to ensure marine life is adequately protected.”

Deep-sea mining is the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the deep sea – the area of the ocean below 200 m. The area covers about 65% of the Earth’s surface and harbours a rich diversity of species – many unknown to science – which are uniquely adapted to harsh environmental conditions. It also includes unique geological features, including the Mariana Trench – the greatest depth registered in the ocean.

The 24th session of the ISA is taking place from 2 to 27 July in Kingston, Jamaica

A High-Stakes Week for Deep-Sea Mining

As the International Seabed Authority meets to debate environmental regulations for the extraction of minerals from fragile ocean habitats, the debate grows between nations and corporations favoring mining and scientists concerned about irreversible impacts.

Todd Woody

16 July 2018

KINGSTON, JAMAICA – As the International Seabed Authority (ISA) meets this week at its oceanside headquarters to draft regulations governing the mining of unique deep-ocean habitats for valuable minerals, delegates to the United Nations-chartered organization face a seemingly impossible task: writing rules to protect from mining rare marine ecosystems of which little is known.

The ISA is charged under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea with regulating the exploitation of the seafloor outside national jurisdiction – in other words, nearly 50 percent of the planet – while at the same time preserving its biodiversity. Until recently, that mandate was more or less theoretical as mining metals at depths that can reach 6,500m (21,000ft) simply was not technologically possible.

That has changed, and over the past year the ISA and its 168 member states have accelerated efforts to write the “Mining Code,” a set of regulations that will permit the extraction of minerals crucial to the production of electric car batteries, mobile phones, solar panels and other gadgets of the postindustrial age. Since 2001, the ISA has issued 15-year contracts that give 29 corporations and state-backed companies exclusive rights to explore 1.3 million square km (500,000 square miles) of the seabed for cobalt, manganese, copper and other minerals found in polymetallic nodules, hydrothermal vent fields and in the crusts of underwater mountains called seamounts. Once the mining code is approved, the seabed authority can begin issuing individual mining licenses, called exploitation contracts in ISA lingo, which will run for 30 years.

During the ISA’s 24th annual session this week, delegates to the 36-member Council will hash out a host of complex topics, from royalty payments to liability issues. But the focus of the Council, the seabed authority’s policymaking body, is likely to be on environmental regulations and the creation of “regional environmental management plans” that would designate large swathes of the seafloor as no-mining zones to protect fragile habitats and long-lived and slow-reproducing organisms.

China, Japan, Singapore and other pro-mining nations, which argue that the extraction of minerals from the seabed would be far less environmentally and socially destructive than terrestrial mining, have urged the Council to move expeditiously to finish the regulations so that commercial mining can commence within the next several years. Some African, European and Latin American nations, along with Australia and New Zealand, have urged the Council to make environmental protection of the deep sea a priority. (The United States has not signed the Law of the Sea Treaty and thus is not a member of the ISA.) The European Parliament in February called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the environmental impacts of seabed mining are fully understood.

Some conservation groups and scientists, meanwhile, are calling for the seabed authority to fundamentally reexamine its mission.

“One of the issues we’re pushing is that the ISA has to seriously consider whether seabed mining is compatible with protection of the marine environment,” said Matthew Gianni, a cofounder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an alliance of international organizations that has observer status at the ISA.

“We are deeply concerned about the potentially irreversible losses of marine biodiversity which will likely result from deep-sea mining,” stated a petition submitted to the ISA by 50 international environmental and nongovernmental organizations. “While much remains unknown about deep-sea ecosystems, recent science calls for a fundamental rethinking of the course set towards allowing commercial deep-sea mining in the short term.”

As the Council session opened Monday morning, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a comprehensive report on seabed mining that concluded that the mining code lacks sufficient knowledge of deep-sea ecosystems and potential mining impacts to effectively protect marine life. The IUCN also questioned whether the seabed authority’s promotion of seabed mining was at odds with its mission to protect the deep-sea environment.

“To avoid possible conflicts of interest, it is appropriate for the ISA to consider divesting some responsibilities to autonomous review, inspection and/or enforcement entities,” the authors wrote.

In the latest draft of the seabed mining exploitation regulations, which delegates will consider this week, the ISA labeled as a “fundamental principle” the “protection and conservation of the marine environment, including biological diversity and ecological integrity.”

The draft, however, says little about how that principle will be implemented in practice.

So watch this this week for a vigorous discussion of regional environmental management plans. The plans are likely to be the main vehicle for balancing exploitation and preservation, and conservation groups and scientists are calling for them to be put in place before the ISA issues any mining licenses.

Only one environmental management plan has been approved so far. That was in 2012 for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a vast abyssal plain that stretches between Hawaii and Mexico. The CCZ has been targeted for the mining of polymetallic nodules, potato-sized rocks that cover the seabed in the millions and are rich in manganese with concentrations of nickel, iron, cobalt and other valuable metals. The CCZenvironmental management plan designated Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEI) that prohibited extraction of nodules in nine 160,000 square-km (62,000 square-mile) blocks of the ocean floor.

Earlier this month, a group of prominent deep-sea scientists published a paper in the journal Science Advances proposing a design for a network of uniformly sized marine reserves that would protect hydrothermal vent ecosystems along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that contain deposits of copper and zinc. However, exploration licenses have already been issued to Poland, France and Russia for much of the area that the scientists advocated being spared from mining.

The Patania is a seabed tractor that deep-sea mining company GSR is testing as part of a system that would harvest polymetallic nodules. (GSR)

“This will be a major challenge – how to place APEIs appropriately given the large amount of the northern [Mid-Atlantic Ridge] currently under exploration contract,” Lisa Levin, a deep-sea marine ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and a coauthor of the paper, said in an email. “ Some of the current exploration contract areas will need to become APEIs and it may be that uniform, similar sized bands won’t be possible.”

A bigger challenge may well be the paucity of data about hydrothermal vent fields – and other deep-ocean ecosystems. The vents, which spew superheated sulfide-laded fluids, spawned unique species and habitats that depend on chemical synthesis rather than photosynthesis – light – for life.

“Our knowledge of deep-sea ecosystems is scant and, without investment in regionally intensive baseline data collection, will likely remain so for decades,” the study’s authors wrote.

A briefing paper issued by the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, a global network of 600 scientists and other experts of which Levin is a leader, noted a similar lack of biological information about the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. “Despite over 200 research expeditions and 40 years of work in the CCZ there are almost no published taxonomic records of animals living in the CCZ,” stated the paper, which called the lack of such data “a major scientific knowledge gap that is impeding the development of environmental regulation in the area.”

Although the ISA has held workshops in recent months on the initial development of regional environmental management plans for mid-ocean ridges and seamounts, the technology to mine the deep sea appears to be advancing faster than the mining regulations.

In 2019, for instance, the Belgian mining equipment company Global Sea Mineral Resources plans to deploy machinery on the seafloor in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone to collect polymetallic nodules as part of a small-scale mining test. The company has filed a 335-page environmental impact statement to the ISA, but the organization’s obligation to approve, reject or put conditions on the mining test – such as requiring long-term monitoring of its impact – remains unclear, according to Gianni.

The clash between efforts to accelerate or slow down the momentum toward licensing deep-sea mining will be in sharper relief here this week. “I hope they will think through issues carefully and not rush decisions,” said Levin. “More time is needed for evaluation and completion of the environmental regulations.”

Nautilus' stock plummets as deep sea mining litigation proceeds

Deep Sea Mining Campaign Media Release

17 July 2018

Today Nautilus Minerals Solwara 1 deep sea mine project will be at the centre of a court hearing in Papua New Guinea as local communities seek to enforce their legal rights to full information about the project. [1]

Andy Whitmore, Finance campaigner from the Deep Sea Mining campaign said, “We were informed that Nautilus told its shareholders at their AGM that the legal case bought by local communities in PNG to stop the Solwara 1 project had been dismissed on June 18.”

“It is also alleged that Nautilus stated to shareholders they believed the government of PNG was going after community for cost recovery because it was a spurious lawsuit.”

“This is misinformation from Nautilus!” claimed Jonathan Mesulam from the Alliance of Solwara Warriors[2], a local community leader whose village is located 25km from the Solwara 1 project.

“There is still a legal case registered at Waigani National Court House. The case, which was adjourned on June 18, will be heard today.”[3]

“The real question is this: why is the government trying to dismiss this case? Why would government resources be invested in blocking this case over the constitutional right of all PNG citizens to Freedom of Information?”

Nautilus stock fell by 19% this month after a string of bad news stories. These include the contract with their shipbuilding supplier had been canceled,[4] major mining company Anglo American divesting its’ shares from the company[5] and that the majority of the local community in New Ireland province oppose the renewal of Nautilus' exploration license.

“Local community around the Community Beneficiary Area (CBA) have all objected to the renewal of Exploration License 1196 through written objection which was lodged at the Mineral Resources Authority (MRA) in March this year. There was also strong objection during the Warden hearing in April” continued Mr. Mesulam.[6]

“New Irelanders are now well informed of the potential impact of Nautilus Minerals and their experimental seabed mining project. They are giving their undivided support to ensure the project is stopped at all cost.”

For more info

Jonathan Mesulam Alliance of Solwara Warriors
mesulamjonathan[at] +675 7003 8933

Andy Whitmore Deep Sea Mining Campaign
whit[at] +44 775 439 5597


[1] ‘Legal action launched over the Nautilus Solwara 1 Experimental Seabed Mine’, Media Release, Alliance of Solwara Warriors and Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCoR), 8 December 2017

[2] The Alliance of Solwara Warriors is a growing group of communities and supporters from Madang, East New Britain, New Ireland, Manus and Milne Bay Provinces.

[3] ‘Locals launch legal action against PNG Gov’t over Nautilus deep sea project’, Australian Mining, 8 December 2017; ‘Troubled Papua New Guinea deep-sea mine faces environmental challenge’, The Guardian, 12 December 2017

[4] 'Nautilus Minerals tanks on shipbuilding contract cancellation', 4 July 2018

[5] ‘Anglo American to exit stake in deep sea mining company’, Financial Times, 5 May 2018

[6] ‘Alliance of Solwara Warriors lodge objection’, Loop PNG, 27 February 2018

Deep Sea Mining Campaign
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Sydney, NSW 2000



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