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Ocean Jigsaw Puzzle Piece Series - Seabed Mining in the Pacific Islands: New economic frontier or Pandora’s box? [2021年03月10日(Wed)]

We live an electric and electronic world. We are reminded of this reality each time we tap on our smartphones, watch the news on our flatscreen tv-sets, use our laptop computers to work from remote or order food online. Yet, we are less aware of living in a technosphere that is also mineral and metallic. For example, the average smartphone contains more than sixty different metals, some of them in short-supply. Also, copper, nickel, lithium and related minerals are key components used to make electric-vehicle batteries and other parts. Moreover, in order to achieve the goals set by the Paris Agreement, humanity is bound to adopt “green technologies’’ such as renewable energies and electric transportation at an unprecedented scale. Since those technologies require a high input of critical minerals and metals, the challenge posed by geological scarcity and extractive capacity is going to be a crucial aspect of the upcoming
green-tech revolution and decarbonization of industries and economies globally.

Presently mining occurs almost entirely on land. Yet,
almost all the mineral commodities mined on land are found also in the marine floor. So far, there has been a lack of incentive to develop the undersea resources due to the technical difficulties and the costs of mining operations. But change is coming fast, prompted by the bustling demand for strategic minerals. Estimates by the World Bank
suggest a necessary production increase of almost 500 percent by 2050 to satisfy the growing demand across electric vehicles, renewable energy systems, and more. Thus, the question of how to procure those minerals in sufficient quantities, and in an environmentally and socially ethical way, looms larger by the day. In this difficult predicament, the seabed is set to become a new “promised land” and economic frontier offering scores of unexploited raw materials essential to the green transition.

The case of seabed cobalt deposits epitomizes the focal role that undersea mining is going to play in the future decades. The global demand for cobalt, a key material to the buoying rechargeable battery market, is expected to double by 2030. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the African country accounting for 65 percent of the world’s cobalt provision, the mineral is often mined inappropriately. The oceans could offer an alternative both in terms of sufficient supply and ethical mining. In fact, cobalt crusts on the seafloor contain large amounts of cobalt, nickel,
manganese, and other metals potentially exceeding the resources contained in land deposits. Hence it will not be long until states and corporations start digging that bounty up and usher the world into the era of commercial-scale undersea mining.

Seabed mining involves extracting submerged minerals and deposits from the marine floor. To date, this activity has been generally limited to shallow coastal waters. For this reason, a distinction should be drawn between seabed mining and deep seabed mining (DSM), the latter occurring below the 200-meter depth line. DSM is an experimental industrial field that involves mining large areas of polymetallic nodules, cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts of seamounts or active and extinct hydrothermal vents at depths varying from 1,400 to 3,700 meters. The vents create globular or massive sulfide deposits, which contain valuable metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt, and zinc.

Types of Seabed Mining.jpg
[Figure 1] New Zealand Environment Guide

The world’s first large-scale mining of hydrothermal vent mineral deposits was carried out by Japan in
, when Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation conducted extractive operations at the hydrothermally active basin known as the Okinawa Trough, a seafloor zone off the coast of Okinawa and within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ, a 200-nautical-mile/370 km area surrounding coastal nations). Like Japan’s, mining activities falling within a country’s EEZ are regulated by that country’s domestic law. To date, only a relatively small number of states - thirty-two in total including China, India, the United States of America and nine Pacific Island countries - have established legal and institutional frameworks for the future
development of DSM. In addition, there is a range of other international agreements pertaining to seabed mining in national jurisdictions, if the nation in question is signatory to these.

In the case of the high seas, ocean floor mining is governed by the 1982 United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994. The Convention established the International Seabed Authority (ISA) - based in Kingston, Jamaica, and counting 167 member states plus the European Union, - which regulates states’ DSM ventures outside the limit of EEZs and is responsible for managing ocean floor resources “for the common heritage of mankind”. While a total of 85-million square kilometers of ocean falls within EEZs and comes under the jurisdiction of national laws, the international deep seabed area (the Area) regulated by ISA comprises about 260-million square kilometers.

ISA is also producing a “Mining Code” : a
comprehensive set of rules, regulations and procedures to regulate prospecting, exploration and exploitation of marine minerals in the Area. The Code falls within the general legal framework established by UNCLOS and the 1994 Implementing Agreement related to DSM. Up to the present time, ISA has issued regulations for the development of three types mineral resources: polymetallic
sulfides (seafloor massive sulfides formed at hydrothermal vents); polymetallic nodules (manganese nodules on abyssal plains); and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts that form on seamounts. Decisions to grant exploration and mining contracts are determined the Legal and Technical Commission, an organ of the ISA Council, consisting of twenty-four members elected by the Council for a period of five years. The Commission’s functions include issuing deep sea exploratory and mining licenses, review of applications for plans of work, supervision of exploration or mining activities, and the assessment of the environmental impact of such activities.

DSM does not yet exist in the Area, where most of the marine deposits of minerals prized by world markets are situated. However, as of February 2021 ISA has entered into fifteen-year exclusive exploration contracts in the deep seabed with thirty contractors in areas totaling more than 1.3 million square kilometers. Such contracts are held by states parties to UNCLOS and by companies sponsored by those parties. Expectedly, holders of exploration contracts would later seek exploitation contracts to initiate mining. On this account, ISA member-states have directed the ISA Secretariat to hasten the drafting of environmental regulations that would govern exploitation contracts. In fact, mining activities will not only be undertaken in extreme geophysical conditions, but also occur in unique environments supporting unique ecosystems teeming with life and exerting a major influence on the whole oceanic biosphere. Therefore, assessing all the potential risks and disciplining a brand-new industry is going to be a pivotal challenge.

Considerations about the environmental impact on the ocean’s living resources factor heavily in the seabed mining equation, since the interconnected
nature of the ocean means that effects would be systemic. For instance, rare and endangered species of marine lifelike whale sharks, sperm whales, and leatherback turtles are at risk from metal toxicity caused by waste disposal. Also, commercial fish catches like tuna are under potential threat. Nonetheless, from a developmental perspective, the governments of a number of small island states, especially in the Insular Pacific region, look at seabed mining as a very promising avenue for improving the economic and social well-being of their countries. Correspondingly, Pacific Island states are among the sponsors of private sector and state-owned companies, from industrialized countries, exploring a large area of the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCFZ). The CCFZ covers 4,500 kilometers of ocean floor between Kiribati and Mexico and is rich in mineral deposits, especially in polymetallic nodules. Signally, of the thirty international exploration licenses issued by ISA, twenty-five are in the Pacific Ocean and eighteen in the CCFZ. Furthermore, there are reportedly hundreds of active exploration licenses in the national waters of six Pacific Island countries, and four Pacific island states have sponsored the grant of exploration licenses in the Area.

Tellingly, Papua New Guinea (PNG) was the first country ever to approve a permit for seabed minerals exploration in 1997, and subsequently a mining license in 2011, to a Canadian company
named Nautilus Minerals Ltd. In addition, the PNG government opted to purchase a 30 percent stake in the project, which was opposed by a vocal coalition of domestic and international preservationists
decrying the destructiveness of that mining venture. Eventually, in November 2019, in the face of serious financial and logistical setbacks, Nautilus was declared bankrupt. And PNG lost $US125 million: an amount equivalent to one-third of its annual health budget. However, the demise of Nautilus did not mark the end of the road for DSM in the Pacific Islands, even among calls for a ten-year moratorium on seabed mining. On the contrary, the Pacific Ocean continues to be at the forefront of the global marine mining effort. For example, Canada-based seabed mining company Deep Green Metals is now targeting nodule fields on the CCFZ floor with support from the governments of Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga.

For certain, DSM is going to rank high in the Pacific
Island agenda in the years to come. In a profoundly
divisive sense. As a matter of fact, the divide is
already evident. In one camp stand some Pacific
Island governments
, driven by the prospect of
providential financial gains (or even economic
salvation) for their countries, siding together with
mining industry players and extra-regional interests.
In the other camp, concerned Pacific Island
political and civil society figures join hands with
scientists and conservationists, and enjoy the
support of international organizations and
governments around the world. Notably, the opening
of the undersea mining era in the Pacific Islands
would have sizeable geopolitical implications for
the international order. To begin with, thanks to the
mining revenues some island countries would
become less dependent on aid and development
assistance, and recalibrate their foreign policy
accordingly. Secondly, power relativities within the
region would be reshaped, leading to new
geopolitical equilibria. Also, the Pacific Islands would
accrue geo-economic centrality, and great power competition for access and influence would intensify
resultantly. Finally, the global map of mineable
resources would be redrawn. In particular, the
existing quasi-monopolies of rare earth metals and
critical minerals would be considerably lessened.

While potential investors keep eyeing the undersea mineral deposits, the controversy about mining the floor of the Pacific extends well-beyond the Pacific Islands, involving environmentalists, scholars, politicians and entrepreneurs worldwide. On the one hand, reports like those issued by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign & Mining Watch Canada in 2020
and WWF in early 2021 warn of the dangers posed to the marine ecosystem and Pacific Island livelihoods and cultures, and urge a moratorium on seabed mining. On the other hand, sources like a 2020 scientific study commissioned by Deep Green Metals - contend that damages from seabed mining would be significantly less than land-based mining. Actually, the switch to ocean-floor mining can be delayed but not indefinitely deferred, because the planetary quest for mineral commodities will inescapably make today’s undersea mining scenarios tomorrow’s reality. In the Pacific as well as in other oceanic quadrants, averting ecological devastation and dispossession of developmental stakeholders will require close supervision and effective governance by ISA and other international bodies, responsible best-practice government and industry regulation, and transparent global/local community engagement to ensure participation and ownership. As Jules Verne proclaimed in his 1870 underwater adventure novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, “the earth does not want new continents, but new men.”

Fabrizio Bozzato
Senior Research Fellow
The Ocean Policy Research Institute

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