Mining the deep ocean is on hold for the moment after the International Seabed Authority postponed making a decision until its next annual session.
Member states opted not to open the seafloor to mining companies, instead delaying discussions on the matter until July next year.
With a two-year trigger pulled by Nauru in July 2021 now expired, nations can apply to the ISA for it to consider applications for mining licences.
In meetings tied up by administrative discussions and a difficult negotiation process over the past fortnight, it was agreed that rules governing mining of the seabed would continue to be developed with a view to their adoption in 2025
Polymetallic nodules on the seabed of areas like the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the north-east Pacific are the targets of companies and their sponsor nations looking to open up a new frontier in mining.
The metals in these nodules could be used to build the world’s clean energy technologies – especially batteries.
But scientists, conservationists, and a growing group of nations oppose exploration on environmental grounds.
Some nations are also wary of the impact a new mining industry may have on their land-based resource sectors.
During the course of the meeting, which has taken place over recent weeks in Kingston, Jamaica, other states joined the call for a moratorium on seabed mining.
Canada and Brazil along with other major economies like France, Germany, Chile, Costa Rica, Finland, Sweden, Portugal, Ireland, Switzerland and New Zealand, plus several other nations, are seeking a moratorium on mining. A motion put forward by France, Chile and Costa Rica to halt mining was knocked back during the discussions.
The delay means lobbying among member states will continue. While nearly two dozen nations have recorded their opposition to mining, countries like Nauru – which triggered the rush to establish regulations – China and Norway are keen to see a start to mining.
As well as weighing up environmental impacts with the prospect of vital resources, nations must also consider compensatory mechanisms for countries whose land-based industries might be impacted by a new form of mining. There are also questions of social licence, which have been raised by civil society groups.
Dr Aline Jaeckel, a specialist in ocean governance and international law from the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, says it remains unclear what direction
s the ISA will take at its next meeting.
“In a way, the future of seabed mining is more uncertain than it was before,” Jaeckel says.
“Politically speaking, countries are quite far apart on whether or not they support seabed mining in the near to medium term.
“I think this session, more so than previous sessions, has demonstrated how differently states view the prospect of seabed mining and how different the interests are of states that are involved in the negotiations.”
While nations can apply for licences, and the ISA is required to consider any applications, there is also scope for the authority to take its time on such submissions. Without regulations in place, companies and sponsor nations are effectively ‘flying blind’ in preparing any request to mine the seafloor.
Nauru has, however, stated its intent to make a submission. However, if the ISA sticks to its new two-year timeline for rule development, nations will at least have a milestone from which to make applications with greater certainty.
The ISA council’s chair Juan Jose Gonzalez Mijares of Mexico last week indicated that the 2025 implementation date is “an indicative target”, rather than a firm cutoff – highlighting just how uncertain the future of the seafloor is.
“They [the ISA] decided that they will intend to continue developing the rules, regulations and procedures, but it’s very non-committal language,” Jaeckel says.
“I suppose the future is fairly wide open.”
Australia’s CSIRO, the NZ National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, Griffith University, University of the Sunshine Coast and Museums Australia are currently undertaking an ecosystem assessment of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone to consider the potential impacts of mining activity to the region.
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