Some member states of the International Seabed Authority hope to regulate deep sea mining, while others share the NGOs’ opposition to the practice on any level.
Monday marked the beginning of crucial negotiations regarding the future of deep sea mining and mineral exploitation in Jamaica, with conservationists aiming to rein in a fledgling industry that currently lacks meaningful regulations.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a little-known intergovernmental organization headquartered in Kingston, and its member states have spent the last decade drafting a mining code for the possible exploitation of nickel, cobalt, and copper in areas of the deep seabed that fall outside of national jurisdictions.
However, an agreement has not yet been reached.
And as of Sunday, following the expiration of a deadline invoked by the small Pacific state of Nauru, the ISA is now obligated to consider granting licenses for potentially environmentally destructive mining operations if governments request them.
That would be a departure from the status quo, where exploration permits have been issued thus far as the deep sea mining sector itches to take off in earnest.
The ISA, which is meeting until the end of the month, is entering “the most critical decision-making period in the history of its existence,” according to Emma Wilson of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.
“We cannot allow exploitation activities to begin” until adequate regulations are in place, Chile’s representative to the ISA’s 36-member council said at the session’s opening on Monday.
“We should initiate a precautionary pause.”
The ISA Council, the body responsible for contract decisions, stated in March that commercial exploitation “should not be carried out” until the mining code is in place.
However, they were unable to reach an agreement on the procedure for evaluating a potential application or the precise interpretation of the clause triggered by Nauru.
Concerned that corporations may exploit the legal void, NGOs hope the Council will make a clearer decision by the 21st of July.
Greenpeace’s Francois Chartier said in a statement, “There’s not much separating the natural wonders of the deep ocean from the mining machines.”
Race to protect the ocean
“The race to defend the ocean is heating up at the ISA,” said Sofia Tsenikli, who leads the DSCC’s campaign for a deep sea mining moratorium.
Less than twenty countries support the moratorium at present, but conservationists hope to rally what they consider to be a silent majority by the end of July.
Chile, France, Palau, and Vanuatu have elected to elevate the debate to the level of politics.
Upon their request and for the first time, the 167-member ISA assembly will debate a “precautionary pause” in mining between July 24 and 28.
Others insist on completing the mining code so that mining can ultimately commence.
“We have a unique opportunity to get it right, and we need to invest our time and energy in that process,” said ISA Secretary General Michael Lodge, adding that a “rigorous and precautionary framework” would enable states to “move to the next stage of exploitation.”
However, many NGOs that accuse the ISA of being pro-industry argue that mining is never secure.
Moreover, any mining activity must be consistent with the international community’s recent efforts to regulate international waters and its goal to preserve 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030.
According to non-governmental organizations and scientists, deep-sea extraction could endanger species and habitats that are unknown but potentially vital to ecosystems.
In addition, they assert that it threatens the ocean’s ability to assimilate carbon dioxide emitted by humans and that its noise interferes with the communication of whales and other species.
“If governments are serious about their environmental credentials, they must categorically reject deep-sea mining,” Chartier stated.