What is Seabed Mining

Is this the start of a new global gold rush? In 2019, Canadian company Nautilus Minerals wants to operate the world’s first Seabed Mine 30 kilometers off the coast of New Ireland. Papua New Guinea.
Globally, the demand for resources is growing, and supplies of raw materials are being depleted. More and more states and companies, therefore, are striving to exploit mineral resources found in almost inaccessible locations. Enormous deposits lie in the depths of our oceans.
The seas around Pacific island countries are at the centre of interest for Deep Seabed Mining. Papua New Guinea will probably be the first country to see this kind of activity. Other island states in the Pacific could soon follow, despite many still unanswered questions surrounding the anticipated effects on people and the environment and regardless of the growing protests of the region’s inhabitants.

Source: Nautilus Minerals


The oceans: new reservoirs of raw materials

The focus is on three marine mineral resources: manganese nodules, cobalt crusts and massive sulphides. All three are found at a depth of several kilometres beneath the surface of the oceans, where all three were formed over millions of years.

Manganese nodules are black lumps the size of potatoes found lying unattached on the floor of the ocean at a depth of 4 000-6 000 metres. These nodules are especially valuable to industry because of their manganese content, but they also contain metals such as copper, nickel, cobalt, lithium, molybdenum and titanium. Economically interesting sites are located predominantly in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean, and in the Indian Ocean. Six billion tonnes of manganese are estimated to be located in the CCZ. This is ten times the land-based reserves of the mineral.

Cobalt crusts are found mainly at depths of between 1 000 and 3 000 metres. They develop primarily on the slopes of the seamounts , with which they are tightly fused. The crusts contain, among other things, manganese, iron, cobalt, platinum and tellurium. Most of the potential extraction sites are in the western Pacific. Massive sulphides are layers of sulphurous metal ores that form on the sides of the so-called black smokers.

Massive sulphides are layers of sulphurous metal ores that form on the sides of the so-called black smokers.
These are ‘chimneys’ through which water escapes at a temperature of up to 400 °C, washing ores out of the sea floor around the hot springs. Massive sulphides develop above all at the plate boundaries in depths of between 1000 and 4000 metres. They, too, are fused with the bedrock. Precious metals such as gold and silver, and other metals, including copper, zinc, platinum and lead, can be found in the layers of ore.

All three types of raw materials contain valuable base metals and precious metals in concentrations significantly higher than those found in land-based reserves. These materials are indispensable to mechanical engineering, electronics and high-tech industries. They are found, for example, in smartphones, laptops, flat screens, wind turbines and cars.


The legal framework

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) divides the oceans into a number of jurisdictions. The legal foundations for the exploration and possible extraction of the deposits vary depending on where they are located. The convention came into force in 1994 and is seen as the ‘constitution of the oceans’. It defines the oceans as the ‘common heritage of mankind’, saying they must be protected. It is UNCLOS that governs the many activities that take place in the oceans, including fishing, shipping, marine scientific research and environmental protection, the laying of cables and pipes, oil and gas production – and deep seabed mining.

166 of the altogether 193 member states of the UN, as well as the European Union, had joined UNCLOS. Among them are many Pacific countries, including PNG and Fiji. Unfortunately, a number of politically influential states such as the USA have not yet joined, and neither have a number of developing countries rich in natural resources such as Peru. The reasons for countries not signing the convention are varied. Some of these countries are involved in disputes over rights of use and territorial issues. The exploitation of mineral resources in international waters, on the high seas, is governed by the rules of UNCLOS for all its member states.

In 1994, when UNCLOS came into force, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established to govern the potential commercial exploitation of mineral resources in international waters. The ISA is based in Jamaica. It manages the valuable resource stocks and grants exploration licences for deep seabed mining in these waters. It is also the role of the ISA to ensure that the profits of maritime mining enterprises are distributed justly across all countries, especially to landlocked developing nations.

Since 2001 the ISA has granted 26 seabed exploration licences for marine mineral resources to countries such as Japan, Russia, France, China, India and Germany. In a number of these cases, only a signature needs to be added to the official contract for exploration to go ahead. Once all of these have been formalised, licences will have been granted covering a total area of 1.2 million square kilometres, which can now be explored by individual states, or by international companies acting on the state’s behalf or with government approval. Each licence is valid for 15 years and can be extended by five years. Some of these can be renewed for five years or converted into a seabed mining licence. Once an exploration licence has been extended for five years, it must be converted into a seabed mining licence to retain its validity; otherwise, the company has to re-apply.

The ISA has developed a set of rules governing the exploration phase, prescribing a number of protection measures. A country applying for a seabed exploration licence, for example, must commit itself to leaving part of the area covered by the licence untouched in the case of future resource extraction. With this stipulation the ISA intends to set up protected areas that can provide the starting point for the regeneration of ecosystems after the cessation of industrial activity. Additionally, the ISA has designated protected areas in the CCZ that are completely out of bounds for deep seabed mining. As yet, however, there is no set of rules governing the extraction of the three types of resources found in the ocean depths. The ISA hopes to approve a regulatory soon, thereby establishing international standards for the protection of the oceans before the start of industrial resource exploitation in international waters.

Many deep seabed deposits, however, especially deposits of massive sulphides and cobalt crusts, are not found in international waters but within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of particular countries. The EEZ stretches for 200 nautical miles (about 370 kilometres) into the sea and is very often identical to the continental shelf, the sea floor that falls away gently or steeply from the coast. The continental shelf is of immense economic significance, since oil, gas and other natural resources can be located in this zone.
While the EEZ is not part of the territory of the country in question, coastal countries have exclusive right of access to energy resources and mineral resources in this zone, as well as the marine flora and fauna – above all, fish stocks. Under certain geological circumstances the EEZ can be extended to 350 nautical miles (approximately 648 kilometres).
This is highly significant for the economies of many countries, and more than 50 countries have so far lodged applications for such an extension with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). No doubt more will follow. Altogether, EEZs cover approximately one-third of the global marine area. It is the respective nation states that grant exploration and mining licences within the EEZs, meaning that national governments are responsible for environmental protection, not the ISA. When a state ratifies or accedes to UNCLOS, its national legislation has to fall into line with the rules of the Convention.

Yet it is evident that the governments of many developing and emerging countries are unable or unwilling to protect their national waters from pollution and their people from its impacts. This is clear from experiences with petroleum extraction both offshore and on land, and from other cases of land-based mining. If the government of a particular state does try to protect its people, such as through new or better laws, it can be faced with claims for considerable damages lodged by international companies. If during the life of a project the company is faced with additional costs, e.g. through the tightening of environmental regulations, in many cases it can sue the state in a court of arbitration.

Pacific island countries will face enormous responsibilities and risks, since a large number of the deep sea mineral deposits are located in their EEZs.


More Information:

Misereor Positionspapier
For a world without deep seabed mining In focus: the Pacific



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