Twenty-Two Countries Searching for Seafloor Minerals

Countries currently exploring the seabed
Countries currently exploring the seabed

Published Apr 11, 2020 11:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) has issued 30 contracts for exploration of the international deep seabed area involving 22 different countries, including 12 developing states. The aim is to find deposits of polymetallic nodules suitable for the extraction of minerals such as copper, nickel, manganese and cobalt. These minerals are important for a range of industries including battery manufacturing and solar panel and wind turbine construction.

Michael W. Lodge, Secretary-General of the ISA, spoke to The Maritime Executive about prospects for the industry.

Are commercial quantities of minerals being produced from these projects yet?
Mining operations have not yet started. Currently, only exploration activities are being undertaken in the international seabed area. These projects are aimed at gathering the necessary information on the location and quality of the minerals of the seabed as well as to collect all the necessary environmental data. 

Exploration regulations for the main three types of seabed minerals have been adopted and are applied to the projects currently being carried out. The challenge now is to make the transition to exploitation, which must reflect best international standards and practices as well as agreed principles of international law.

ISA has led several rounds of stakeholder consultation with its 168 members, as well as observers from civil society and international organizations, with a view to develop exploitation regulations that will include rigorous environmental protection requirements. The exploitation regulations will be formally adopted once all 168 Members of ISA reach consensus on its content. 

Mining for these minerals has raised concern about seafloor biodiversity and habitat damage. What do you think the key issues are and how are you addressing them?

As outlined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, ISA and its members have the duty to protect the marine environment from harmful impacts that may arise from seabed activities. Accordingly, ISA is required to develop measures and tools to provide for the effective protection and preservation of the marine environment, including marine biodiversity. 

Regional Environmental Management Plans (REMPs) are a critical element of such policy and are being developed in close cooperation with member states, the scientific community, contractors and other competent international organizations.

ISA has established nine Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEIs) covering 1.7 million square kilometers on the seabed of the Pacific Ocean, as part of the regional environmental management plan adopted for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. By applying this area-based management tool, this vast area will be protected from future exploitation of mineral resources in the Area of this region. ISA is in the process of extending regional environmental management plans for the North Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and the North West Pacific.

Are all the regulatory controls in place to manage environmental protection?

Environmental protection is at the forefront of ISA’s responsibilities. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea requires ISA to adopt rules, regulations, and procedures designed to prevent, reduce and control pollution and other hazards to the marine environment having the potential to interfere with the ecological balance of the marine environment. To be approved, even exploration activities must be accompanied by an assessment of their potential impact, along with a description of a program for oceanographic and baseline environmental studies. These requirements must be abided by in accordance with the rules, regulations and procedures adopted under consensus, by all 168 members of ISA.

Once in place, the exploitation regulations will require any mining companies planning to undertake activities in the international seabed area, to abide by stringent global environmental requirements.

How can these resources help to advance the blue economy?

The sustainable development of deep seabed minerals could significantly contribute to leveraging the blue economy for all nations, particularly for developing countries, but this will require addressing specific challenges in relation to technology, data and information. The benefits to mankind of deep seabed exploration extend far beyond knowledge of the mineral resources and shared financial benefits from future mining, but also include scientific knowledge of the marine environment that will be critical to realizing all aspects of the blue economy, including knowledge of marine biodiversity.

To address this challenge, ISA has partnered with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) to boost the capacity of Pacific Small Island Developing States (P-SIDS), through the Abyssal Initiative for Blue Growth. Three regional workshops have already been held in P-SIDS and two more are planned for 2020. 

Building on this successful initiative, ISA is developing specific projects for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean regions. ISA is also working with the African Minerals Development Centre of the Africa Union as part of its joint commitments to support Africa’s Blue Economy and map Africa’s deep-seabed resources.

Why are seabed minerals important for sustainable development?

As the world’s population continues to grow, from seven billion today to 9.6 billion in 2050, the demand for critical minerals will rise. To achieve the objective of a future society based on renewable energy and technology, it will be critical to find new sources of reliable, clean and ethically sourced mineral resources. 

The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea set aside the international deep seabed area as the common heritage of mankind. This means the financial and other economic benefits derived from activities undertaken in the international seabed area must be equitably shared among all states. In so doing, particular consideration shall be given to the interests and needs of developing states. 

How is ISA working with developing states to advance deep-sea exploration?

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea requires ISA to promote and encourage the transfer of technology and scientific knowledge to developing states. ISA is committed to raising awareness and enhancing participation of vulnerable countries in the activities and programs conducted by ISA. 

ISA is currently improving the delivery and implementation of its capacity development programs and initiatives to meet the needs and priorities of developing states, particularly SIDS, Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Land Locked Developing Countries (LLDCs). ISA is creating meaningful capacity development opportunities for candidates from developing States through the Endowment Fund for the Marine Scientific Research, contractor training programs and its internship program.