Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was shaping up as a difficult year for the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the organization charged with governing mining in deep ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction. Proponents of seabed mining had set 2020 as a target for the ISA to finalize regulations for a first generation of commercial mining operations. Without such rules, companies and governments can only explore—but not mine—the seabed for minerals and metals.
Yet scientists, along with many ISA member countries and environmental advocates—including The Pew Charitable Trusts—had cautioned against moving forward, warning that persistent scientific uncertainty about the deep sea and governance gaps in the mining regime would put marine life at serious risk. Those parties called for more time to study the potential impacts of mining before allowing any entity to move forward with it.
Then, like almost all international organizations, the ISA was forced to cancel its in-person meetings because of COVID-19, significantly hampering discussion of the regulations. This slowdown, and the start of a new year, offers a chance to reflect on developments so far and to look ahead to next steps when the ISA’s regular business resumes.
The high seas are home to a wealth of life vulnerable to human disturbances, and experts believe that these areas harbor thousands of species yet to be identified. For example, scientists in 2016 discovered the Casper octopus, which lays its eggs on sponges attached to polymetallic nodules. Those nodules—potato-sized lumps that contain metals and are scattered across parts of the sea floor—are just one of the types of natural features that companies and governments are eager to mine in the deep ocean.
But unregulated mining could be detrimental to a range of marine species. Many deep-sea organisms grow extremely slowly and could take centuries to recover from damage—or may never come back—with potentially dire consequences for nature and people.
There is growing evidence that deep-water corals and microbes have medicinal benefits in humans, including in fighting coronaviruses. Scientists have found that more than 40 marine compounds possess anti-viral properties that may be useful in vaccines.
As of the end of 2020, 21 companies or countries had permits to search roughly 1.5 million square kilometers of the sea floor for potential mine sites, and to test equipment in those areas.
In January, one of the permit holders, the government of India, submitted an environmental impact assessment to the ISA for a proposed test mine. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Code Project—a Pew-sponsored coalition of scientific and legal experts from around the world—evaluated the assessment and submitted feedback to India, pointing out significant gaps that, unfortunately, made it impossible to assess whether the country’s test mine or future commercial-scale operations would harm the environment. The Code Project also submitted similar comments on an environmental impact assessment prepared by the Belgian company GSR in 2018.
The ISA only encourages—but does not require—that entities submit environmental impact statements before exploring the seabed. There is no mechanism in place for the ISA to review these assessments or stop activities because of environmental risks. Pew has encouraged the ISA to fix these problems by adopting strong environmental assessment processes that require mining contractors to respond to environmental concerns.
To complement that effort, the ISA must also implement strong protections for the marine environment, including through regional environmental management plans, which are meant to help the ISA understand and manage particular expanses of the seabed to minimize the environmental impacts of potential mining activity.
The ISA in 2020 convened a series of virtual workshops—including several that Pew attended—to advance environmental plans for several regions, including the mid-Atlantic and northwest Pacific. The body is expected to release reports from those workshops this year. Further progress on these plans will need to be informed by more data in the case of the northwest Pacific, and broader stakeholder input in the mid-Atlantic.
Last year the ISA also initiated consultations around three sets of standards and guidelines intended to supplement the regulations on exploitation now under development.
In extensive feedback submitted to the ISA, Pew highlighted the need to conduct several rounds of consultation for each set of those standards and guidelines to ensure that marine life is adequately protected. Pew further emphasized that these vital regulatory documents should not be rushed in any way.
Despite the lack of meetings, the ISA took several decisions that were ostensibly “procedural” but that had important substantive consequences. Key among these was its approval of a work plan from Blue Minerals Jamaica Ltd., a company that wants to explore part of the Pacific Ocean for polymetallic nodules. Stakeholders, including Pew, noted their disappointment that this decision unfolded without any meaningful debate.
In the new year, the ISA should continue consulting with experts and other stakeholders so that it can form strong controls that will ensure that no mining occurs unless and until the safety of the environment can be guaranteed.
Andrew Friedman is associate manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ seabed mining project.