NGOs fear seabed mining could get green light in 2023

More and more governments are calling for strong environmental rules before allowing any large-scale mining of the seabed, but NGOs fear the industry will be given the green light this year.

Several nations have called for a moratorium on such mining at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) council meeting, which concludes on Friday.

“The political atmosphere has changed dramatically since a year ago, when no state stood up and said no to mining,” Emma Wilson of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition told AFP.

But ahead of the meeting’s final day, she was still “very concerned” that a seabed mining code could be approved this year.

The ISA, established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, has authority over the ocean floors outside of its 167 member states’ Exclusive Economic Zones, which extend up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from coastlines.

It has so far awarded seabed exploration contracts only to research centers and companies in well-defined areas of potential mineral wealth.

Industrial exploitation of nickel, cobalt or copper is not expected to begin until the adoption of a mining code that has been under discussion for nearly 10 years.

For years, NGOs and scientists have warned about the damage seabed mining could inflict on deep-sea ecosystems.

Countries are increasingly echoing that concern: Canada, Australia and Belgium among others have insisted that international seabed mining cannot begin without strict rules.

“Brazil believes that… the best available scientific knowledge is insufficient to approve any deep-sea mining project,” Ambassador Elza Moreira Marcelino de Castro said at the ISA council meeting, without calling for a moratorium on exploitation.

“Underwater mining would not only damage the seabed but also have a wider impact on fish populations, marine mammals and the essential role in climate regulation of deep-sea ecosystems,” said Vanuatu representative Sylvain Kalsakau.

“We encourage our Pacific neighbors who have expressed an interest in underwater mining to move away from the precipice,” he said in a message to Nauru.

– ‘A lot of anxiety’ –

Nauru, impatient with the pace of progress, invoked in June 2021 a clause allowing it to demand that relevant rules be adopted within two years.

Once that deadline is reached, Nauru’s government could request a mining contract for NORI (Nauru Ocean Resources), a subsidiary of Canada’s The Metals Company.

But the council is currently divided over the process for reviewing an application for a mining contract, and risks splitting on Friday without agreement, observers told AFP.

Among the 36 members of the ISA’s executive body, some want rules that make it more difficult to approve the contract.

In contrast, Norway’s Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said that underwater mineral exploitation may not be “at the expense of biodiversity”.

“It creates a lot of anxiety here,” said Pradeep Singh, a law of the sea expert at the Research Institute for Sustainability in Potsdam.

Although Nauru has offered what it called a “good faith” promise to wait until ISA’s July council meeting before filing a mining application, observers told AFP they doubted that the mining code would be completed by then.

“It seems that meeting the deadline is not possible,” Singh said.

“There are just too many items on the list that still need to be resolved,” he added, including the highly contentious issue of how profits from undersea mining would be shared, and how environmental impacts should be measured.

Some ocean advocates have not lost hope.

“The momentum remains good,” Greenpeace’s Francois Chartier told AFP. — Agence France-Presse