DEEP-SEA MI­NING – Whe­re do we stand?

Deep-sea mi­ning is con­cer­ned wi­th the ex­plo­ita­ti­on of mi­ne­ral de­po­sits on the seabed. In­so­far as such de­po­sits lie bey­ond a country’s ex­clu­si­ve eco­no­mic zo­ne, i.e. on the seabed un­der­neath the high seas, deep-sea mi­ning is re­gu­la­ted by the United Na­ti­ons Con­ven­ti­on on the Law of the Sea (UN­CLOS) and the Im­ple­men­ting Agree­ment to Part XI of UN­CLOS. This is an ex­tre­me­ly spe­ci­fic re­gime ba­sed on the prin­ci­ple enshri­ned in UN­CLOS that the in­ter­na­tio­nal seabed and its mi­ne­ral re­sour­ces are the “com­mon he­ri­ta­ge of man­kind.”

The UN bo­dy in char­ge of re­gu­la­ting deep-sea mi­ning is the In­ter­na­tio­nal Seabed Aut­ho­ri­ty (ISA) ba­sed in Ja­mai­ca. Deep-sea mi­ning ac­ti­vi­ty on the in­ter­na­tio­nal seabed re­qui­res a li­cence from the ISA.

So far, the ISA has gran­ted 31 ex­plo­ra­ti­on li­cen­ces, two of which have be­en gran­ted to Ger­ma­ny. Such li­cen­ces en­tit­le their hol­ders to con­duct ex­plo­ra­ti­on ac­ti­vi­ties on the seabed of the are­as in re­spect of which the cor­re­spon­ding li­cence has be­en ob­tai­ned.

Ac­tu­al mi­ning ac­ti­vi­ty on the in­ter­na­tio­nal seabed, ho­we­ver, re­qui­res a spe­ci­fic ex­plo­ita­ti­on li­cence from the ISA. To date, no such li­cence has be­en is­sued. A pre-re­qui­si­te for any ex­plo­ita­ti­on li­cence to be is­sued is a pu­blished set of of­fi­ci­al ex­plo­ita­ti­on ru­les - known as the Mi­ning Code - to set the stan­dards to be met by ex­plo­ita­ti­on ac­ti­vi­ty, in par­ti­cu­lar as re­gards the pre­ser­va­ti­on of the ma­ri­ne en­vi­ron­ment. Alt­hough draft ex­plo­ita­ti­on ru­les exist, the­se are still go­ing th­rough the ad­op­ti­on pro­cess wi­thin the ISA.

The South Pa­ci­fic is­land of Nau­ru has re­a­ched an agree­ment wi­th an in­ter­na­tio­nal mi­ning com­pa­ny which could in prin­ci­ple al­low deep-sea mi­ning to com­mence on­ce the mi­ning com­pa­ny re­cei­ves an ex­plo­ita­ti­on li­cence.

Ho­we­ver, en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues in re­la­ti­on to deep-sea mi­ning re­main a very big con­cern. The ef­fect of deep-sea mi­ning on eco­sys­tems on the deep seabed is not un­ders­tood. On 24 Ju­ne 2022, the Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­si­on pu­blished the EU agen­da on In­ter­na­tio­nal Oce­an Go­ver­nan­ce which ci­tes as a “key prio­ri­ty” the need to pro­tect the seabed and a ban on deep-sea mi­ning as a way to achie­ve this. Im­me­dia­te­ly the­re­af­ter, du­ring the se­cond UN Oce­ans Con­fe­rence held in Por­tu­gal, France’s pre­si­dent cal­led for a pre­cau­tio­na­ry ban on deep-sea mi­ning, in what is be­lie­ved to be the first such call on the part of a coun­try which holds an ex­plo­ra­ti­on li­cence. Curr­ent­ly, the­r­e­fo­re, deep-sea mi­ning re­mains sub­ject to si­gni­fi­cant head­wind.