Environmental Compliance Strategies for Deep-Sea Mining

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) regulates mining of the ocean floor beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. Its duties include ensuring effective protection for the marine environment from any harmful effects of mining activities. The ISA is developing the rules, regulations, and procedures that will govern this emerging industry if and when commercial mining begins.

Contractors permitted by the ISA to mine the deep seabed will be required to adopt best environmental practices, while the ISA itself must adopt best regulatory practices to ensure compliance. Despite the unique constitutional character and governance mechanisms of the ISA, there are lessons to learn from existing compliance and regulatory regimes. The Pew Charitable Trusts commissioned a white paper by Kevin Murphy, an environmental consultant with decades of experience advising mining and other extractive industry stakeholders, to study pre-eminent natural resource regulators and their industry counterparts.

Murphy conducted research and interviewed regulators in national environmental organizations, natural resource protection agencies, compliance personnel corporations, and international financial institutions over a 12-month period.  He also drew on input from a panel of international experts from industry, regulatory agencies, and environmental organizations.

The resulting study offers an overview of select compliance regimes and a series of recommendations based on their common elements. These include:

  • Institutional frameworks. The ISA should build environmental expertise. Options include strengthening the ISA’s key technical body, the Legal and Technical Commission, with more environmental specialists; establishing a separate environment Commission; and/or creating an environment department within the ISA Secretariat that reports via the ISA’s Secretary-General to the Council, the Authority’s executive arm.
  • Compliance promotion. Contractors and states sponsoring mining activities could establish an industry association to promote model codes of conduct and practice. The ISA could publish guidance for would-be exploitation contractors and sponsors on the full suite of environmental obligations they would be expected to discharge and anticipated approaches.
  • Compliance monitoring. A data-management strategy should standardize data formats, quality checks, provenance, uses, licensing, training, and publication. Moreover, the ISA should consider environmental auditing or inspection as a specialist area to be addressed by an ISA compliance team reporting to the Secretary-General.
  • Compliance enforcement. A compliance enforcement strategy should describe triggers for compliance actions while emphasizing early dialogue between the ISA and contractors to promote mutually agreed corrective action. The white paper provides additional strategies for the ISA and sponsoring states to ensure contractor compliance.
  • Public reporting, accountability, and transparency. Documents such as contracts and plans of work (including environmental planning documents), rationales for ISA decisions to award contracts, annual reports, environmental management reports, audits and inspection reports, periodic reviews of plans of work, incidence reports, compliance notices, environmental improvement plans, and reports of enforcement actions should be made public.
  • Assessing effectiveness. The ISA should establish a transparent and consultative process to assess its work annually and report on environmental compliance against targets and a strategic plan. Moreover, it should commission and publish a parallel assessment from an external source. The annual assessment should then be presented to the ISA Council and made available to the public.