Deep Sea Mining May Start in 2023, but Environmental Questions Persist

File image courtesy Nautilus International

Published May 1, 2022 2:16 PM by Brian Gicheru Kinyua

This is a significant year for the two factions debating on the global readiness for deep sea mining. On one hand are mining companies and investors inclined to venture into the deep for essential minerals to power industrialization. On the other hand is environmental campaigners, convinced that the available data leads to scientific gaps on seabed mining.

From mid-March to April 1, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) Council held the first part of its 27th session in Kingston, Jamaica. The second part is slated to start in July. At the conclusion of the session, the council will consider draft regulations on exploitation of seabed mineral resources. This means that seabed mining could start in earnest sometime next year. But many researchers and environmental advocates are worried that ISA could be moving too fast, and that lightly-regulated mining could destroy seabed ecosystems that are little-known and little-understood.

Although seabed mining is increasingly gaining support from large industrial states, many countries are still skeptical, if not opposed. In an interesting twist of events, Tuvalu earlier this month reversed its controversial decision to sponsor seabed mining.

“After concerns by the government as well as within particularly the foreign ministry, we’ve had to rescind that support that we had initially given last year,” announced the Foreign Minister Simon Kofe.

Tuvalu had sponsored mining firm Circular Metals Tuvalu last December to apply for an exploration license from the International Seabed Authority.

Nauru, another Pacific island nation has been ardent on seabed mining. In June 2021, the country’s President Lionel Aingimea wrote to ISA, giving it a two-year deadline to develop seabed-mining rules. Under ISA’s so-called “ two-year rule,” a member nation can ask for a mining plan to be approved after two years under whatever rules are in place at that time.

However, two issues have raised concerns among environmental advocates.

First, some observers and member states are concerned by lack of transparency at ISA as it steers the world towards seabed mining. For example, the meetings of ISA’s Legal and technical committee are normally held behind closed doors and summary reports lack detail.

Second, a standard method to probe the potential environmental impacts of commercial seabed mining is currently unavailable. Before ISA can issue a mining company with a permit, a comprehensive environmental assessment is needed. There is little research on the long-term impacts of deep-sea mining disturbance, and the limited data available suggests the possibility of long-term ecosystem harm.

A peer-reviewed paper published in the April issue of Marine Policy further illustrates the dearth of environmental baseline data, even in areas ISA has greenlighted for exploration. A team of 31 deep sea-scientists and experts, including four members of ISA’s mining regulations committee, authored the paper.

“A synthesis of the peer-reviewed literature and consultations with deep-seabed mining stakeholders revealed that, despite an increase in deep-sea research, there are few categories of publicly available scientific knowledge comprehensive enough to enable evidence-based decision-making regarding environmental management, including whether to proceed with mining in regions where exploration contracts have been granted by the International Seabed Authority,” notes the paper.