Deep-Sea Mining: A Looming Environmental Crisis?

On July 9, 2021, Nauru Marine Resources Corporation, which has a Canadian company’s capital injection background, submitted an application for a deep-sea mining development license to the International Seabed Authority (hereinafter referred to as “the Authority”). At that time, its parent company, the Canadian mining company The Metals Company, was ambitious and publicly stated that it planned to realize the commercial development of deep-sea mineral resources in the exploration area of ​​Nauru Ocean Resources Corporation in 2024, and hoped to achieve an annual output of 10 million tons in 2025.

When the time comes to 2023, this license application, which has been lying for two years, has started a countdown to a storm of public opinion.

Due to the many issues involved, the regulations and systems related to the mining industry in the international seabed area have been in the stage of formulation. According to relevant international regulations and agreements, if the ISA fails to complete the formulation of mining regulations within two years of the submission of the application for a development license, the Council will need to consider whether to approve the relevant work plan. This is known simply as the “two-year rule.”

Until July this year, the relevant mining regulations were still in the drafting stage, but the application for a development license submitted by Nauru Ocean Resources Corporation has exceeded the two-year period and can be submitted to the Council of the Sea Authority at any time. Rights to mining plans of work. Since the regulations have been difficult to pass so far, if the work plan of Nauru Ocean Resources Company is approved before the official regulations are implemented, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the northeast of the Pacific Ocean that the company is targeting ”), will face commercial mining activities with extremely weak supervision and legal constraints.

From July 10 to 21, 2023, the second council of the 28th session of the ISA was held in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. At the meeting, negotiations on seabed development regulations and two-year rules had no substantive results. The council The non-enforceable draft plan agreed at this session will be reassessed in one year. Three days later, the 28th General Assembly of the ISA opened at the same venue. The meeting, scheduled to end on July 28, will likely determine the future of the hitherto mysterious deep seabed region.

Deep sea mining refers to the process of extracting and mining mineral resources from the deep seabed. Generally speaking, the deep sea refers to the sea area with a water depth of more than 200 meters. The main mined minerals include polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts. At present, deep-sea mining is still in the stage of prospecting and exploration, and has not yet entered into commercial mining. The ISA has issued 30 exploration contracts for 21 companies/institutions for exploration activities, all of which have a limitation period of 15 years.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (referred to as the “Convention”), if a state-run or private enterprise/institution wants to explore or develop deep-sea mineral resources in the international seabed area, it must obtain guarantees from the parties to the Convention and submit corresponding work. Plan, the above-mentioned sponsoring country of Nauru Ocean Resources Corporation is Nauru, and the mineral development application submitted by the company is located in the Clarion-Clipperton area, which is considered to be the largest nodule mining area in the world in terms of area and reserves.

Clean technology will be the fastest-growing area of ​​mineral demand as countries strengthen their climate ambitions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the demand for minerals in clean energy technologies will increase at least fourfold by 2040. Because deep-sea minerals contain elements such as cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese, some countries and companies believe that deep-sea mining can be used to meet the ever-increasing demand for new energy minerals. Supporters of deep-sea mining say that the risk of land mining is increasing , while being more destructive from an environmental and social perspective. Some supporters also believe that the deep sea is not a place for human habitation, and mining in the deep sea does not need to coordinate interests with local residents and communities, and the risk is less.

Nauru stated that it will suffer huge losses due to climate change, and pointed out that the exploitation of seabed minerals in relevant areas is the legal right of Nauru granted by the Convention. In addition, Norway not only publicly emphasizes getting rid of the dilemma of metal resources through deep-sea mining, but also recently proposed to open part of the Norwegian jurisdiction for commercial mining.

There may be many misunderstandings in these views: the advancement of deep-sea mining will not end the mining of land; The effects of deep-sea mining are also not limited to the active area, so when deep-sea mining is used as a half-baked alternative, its consequences are complex and unpredictable.

In order to be able to work in the deep sea, the nodule collection machine is like a vacuum cleaner the size of a house, weighing tens of tons, crawling back and forth on the seabed to collect nodules, similar to an enhanced version of the “gold miner” site. Of course, the reality is far more complicated than the game, because the operation process may have a devastating impact.

The deep sea was once considered dark and lifeless. In recent years, the discoveries of marine scientific research have continuously refreshed people’s understanding of the deep sea ecosystem. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone is one of the ecosystems with the richest biodiversity in the deep sea. Scientific expeditions have discovered more than 5,000 new species here, most of which are unique to this area. Scientists estimate that 88%–92% of the creatures are still There are research gaps.

Existing studies have shown that deep-sea mining will not only directly damage the ecosystem of the mining area, but also bring about a wider range of environmental impacts: suspended sediments produced by mining may block respiratory organs and cause biological suffocation; differences in sound transmission media make deep-sea mining The noise touches a farther area (than in the air); during the mineral separation process, seawater with a high concentration of metals is discharged into the sea to cause pollution, and these metals are enriched in organisms along the food chain, and may eventually enter seafood products middle.

Because the areas where deep-sea minerals are located often have rich and unique biodiversity, environmental organizations represented by Greenpeace and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) call for a cautious view of deep-sea mining. The impact of human activities in the deep sea should be clarified and comprehensively Consider the pros and cons of the solution.

Under the premise that many questions still need to be answered, the pause button should be pressed on the development process of deep sea mining based on the precautionary principle, instead of being forced to set a deadline for draft negotiations due to the expiration of the two-year rule, and It is suggested that development activities are contrary to the principles of marine conservation of the Convention.

Beyond the environmental impact, the economics of deep sea mining are still up for debate. Considering that the operating costs of deep-sea mining include multiple links such as collection, processing and transportation, and the impact of inflation in the past few years, it is a challenge to prove to investors that the “business” of deep-sea mining is facing. On July 19 this year, during the council meeting, 37 mainstream financial institutions around the world (with total assets of more than 3.3 trillion euros) issued a joint statement opposing the advancement of deep sea mining before fully understanding the environmental, social and economic risks and alternatives. And mentioned that increasing investment in circular economy may be a more effective way.

The issue of social fairness in deep-sea mining is still controversial: According to the Convention, deep-sea mineral resources are the common heritage of mankind, and no country should take them for its own, and should share the benefits generated by the development of deep-sea mineral resources fairly. However, the gap in the management mechanism means that there is uncertainty about how the benefits of deep sea mining will be shared. In addition, small island countries facing economic bottlenecks may be driven by short-term economic benefits to act as guarantor countries for mining companies, but they need to bear the long-term environmental consequences of mining activities.

At the current 28th session of the conference, the members of the conference have expanded from 36 members of the council to 168 contracting parties. The conference may discuss whether to suspend deep-sea mineral development for the first time in history. According to the Convention, the General Assembly, as the highest authority of the Authority, has the power to formulate relevant policies for activities in the Area, and should ensure that resource management measures comply with the principles of biodiversity conservation.

2023 is a landmark year for marine life. In June this year, after nearly 20 years of lengthy negotiations, 193 member states of the United Nations adopted a historic agreement on marine biodiversity (the “BBNJ Agreement”), injecting new vitality and hope into global ocean protection . After a month, the fate of the ocean has ushered in a new key node. Does the transformation of new energy mean that humans must drive mining machines to the deep sea?

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