MAC/20: Mines and Communities

The Imperative To Ban Seabed Mining

Published by MAC on 2006-05-25


The imperative to ban seabed mining

by Nostromo Research

25th May 2006

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows coastal states to explore resources within a 200-nautical mile EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). This is largely the result of a political compromise, hammered out over many years between rich nations and "lesser developed" states. The fact that most economic polymetallic sulphide nodules are to be found in the South, served to heighten the debate.

Contrary to widespread impressions (including those in the article below) commercial "scientific" investigation of minerals on, or close to, the ocean floor started even before the Convention was signed in 1982, with BHPBilliton and Rio Tinto/Kennecott heading up deepsea mining consortiums .

The First Convention on the Law of the Sea established that the resources of the seabed were beyond the limits of national jurisdiction and thus "the common heritage of mankind"

No sooner had those noble words been broadcast than the tussles began. As the United Nations puts it: "The developed countries took the view that the resources should be commercially exploited by mining companies in consortia and that an international authority should grant licenses to those companies.

"The developing countries objected to this view on the grounds... that the most appropriate way to benefit...was for the international community to establish a public enterprise to mine the international seabed area.

"Thus, the gamut of proposals ran from a 'weak' international authority, noting claims and collecting fees, to a "strong" one with exclusive rights to mine the common heritage area, involving States or private groups only as it saw fit." The "solution" was to make possible both the public and private enterprises on one hand and the collective mining on the other - the so-called "parallel system", administered by the Internatinal Seabed Authority. [see: http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/convention_overview_convention.htm]

In fact, the system is barely working and the pretended "solution" is being challenged anew. The Northern states of Canada, Denmark and Russia are now vying for control of a huge underwater mountain ridge in the High Arctic.

In theory there is nothing to prevent a country like Papua New Guinea permitting a company like Nautilus and its joint venture sponsor, Placer (so-called "Pioneer Investors"), from digging up a significant amount of manganese, copper, gold, nickel, from within the state's EEZ - all under the guise of "investigation". At a later stage, Papua New Guinea can gain permission for commercial exploitation from the International Seabed Authority - though of course, that is by no means the same as enabling Papua New Guinean citizens to profit from eventual sales, any more than they do when mining takes place on land.

Numerous questions beset any move from oceanbed exploration to exploitation. It's not only the location and economic value of seabed minerals which are at issue, but the technology which might be employed to extract them. Suction, scooping, bucket dredging, all carry environmental liabilities, and depend on a surface vessel - often contending with choppy seas - for processing. As usual, waste disposal is the key issue. Advocates of seabed mining contend that it generates less waste than comparable extraction on land . Insofar as the recovered minerals are higher grade than their terrestrial equivalent, this may be true.

But this is an also argument which was heavily employed to justify submarine tailings disposal (STD) - a practice now widely condemned, including by some in the mining industry. Indeed, the prospect of potentially acid-generating sulphide wastes toppling back into the sea from an insecure ship - or worse, deliberately being spread on the ocean floor where they then "upwell" towards the surface - may be even greater.

If ever there was an opportunity for "mankind" to take,at more than face value the rhetoric about its "common heritage", not to mention the precautionary principle, then it has surely arrived.

Banning all seabed mining is not an extreme position: it is an absolute imperative.
[Comment by Nostromo Research, London, May 25 2006]

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