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First, the negative view:

Crunch talks due on deep-sea mining controversy - BBC News

Scientists fear a possible "goldrush" for precious metals beneath the oceans could have devastating consequences for marine life.

But supporters argue that these minerals are needed if the world is to meet the demand for green technologies.

The controversy was triggered in 2021 when the tiny Pacific Island of Nauru made a formal request to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) - the UN body that oversees mining in international waters - for a commercial licence to begin deep sea mining.

This triggered a clause that put the ISA on a two-year countdown to consider the application, despite there being minimal regulations in place.

Countries have been meeting regularly since to try and finalise the rules on environmental monitoring and sharing of royalties, but without success.

And the now the positive view:

The Economist Deep-sea mining may soon ease the world’s battery-metal shortage

Over the past five years most of the growth in demand has been met by Indonesia, which has been bulldozing rainforests to get at the ore beneath. In 2017 the country produced just 17% of the world’s nickel, according to cru, a metals research firm. Today it is responsible for around half, or 1.6m tonnes a year, and that number is rising. cru thinks Indonesia will account for 85% of production growth between now and 2027. Even so, that is unlikely to be enough to meet rising demand. And as Indonesian nickel production increases, it is expected to replace palm-oil production as the primary cause of deforestation in the country.

But there is an alternative. A patch of Pacific Ocean seabed called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (ccz) is dotted with trillions of potato-sized lumps of nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper, all of which are of interest to battery-makers (see map). Collectively the nodules hold an estimated 340m tonnes of nickel alone—more than three times the United States Geological Survey’s estimate of the world’s land-based reserves. Companies have been keen to mine them for several years. With the coming expiry, on July 9th, of an international bureaucratic deadline, that prospect looks more likely than ever.

Question:

How does do these specific UN deep sea mining restrictions compare to say the Paris Climate Accord, where there were no real penalties for bailing out? Or for not following through on commitments?

On the one side, "international law" often hits the hard limit of nation sovereignty. And Nauru is a nation. On the other hand, the proposed mining zone is nowhere near its EEC. Which makes it somewhat more like regulating, or not, fishing in international waters.

Which (overfishing ) ... is maybe a bigger fish to fry than focusing on deep sea mining. And is not all that enforced.

Basically, if Nauru wants to do as it pleases and provide a mining multinational legal cover, what's to stop it from doing so?

more reading:

Is deep-sea mining imminent? Canada wants a pause | The Narwhal

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  • I’m surprised it’s Nauru that’s been used for this purpose rather than the US jurisdiction which entirely refused to accept that treaty. Jul 14, 2023 at 3:50
  • @JonathanReez Per the answer a private company needs a state sponsor do this. I don't think the US would qualify for that as they are not a member. So if a company wants to do this within this framework, using a small island nation as a sponsor is the way to go. If they want to do it outside of the legal framework they could just do it, no need to involve the US.
    – quarague
    Jul 14, 2023 at 9:20
  • @JonathanReez Nauru has been at the front of this for quite some time. Already in 2010, the Council of the Authority asked the Seabed Disputes Chamber for its legal opinion on the liability of states sponsoring a private enterprise. This was triggered by Nauru raising the question whether they could be held responsible for damages that could theoretically surpass the worth of the state as a whole.
    – ccprog
    Jul 14, 2023 at 12:58
  • @quarague doing it within the US legal system would provide them with protection against any treaty parties who might disagree with what they’re doing, which I understand to be the biggest problem of this whole enterprise. Jul 14, 2023 at 13:21
  • @JonathanReez There is no evidence anyone really wants to act outside of regulations. And while Ronald Reagan wanted to abstain from the convention, most administrations since the 1994 agreement dealing with the US objections urged for ratification. They could not get it past the Senate yet. Note the list of supporters includes Lockheed Martin, which decided to join in two UK-sponsored contract applications.
    – ccprog
    Jul 14, 2023 at 16:33

1 Answer 1

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Here is an overview of the legal framework:

Deep Sea mining in international waters is regulated by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The convention has been ratified by 167 state parties, excluding as usual in recent decades, the United States of America.

Member (blue) and observer (gold) states of the International Seabed Authority

Member (blue) and observer (gold) states of the International Seabed Authority. Source

Exploitation of resources of the deap sea are the subject of Part XI of the convention. Its core stipulations are:

  • the establishment of the International Seabed Authority (seated in Kingston, Jamaica) as the body tasked with executing the content of the convention. It has multiple roles: it acts as a regulator, redistributes royalties earned from contractors to tasks set by the convention, and could also act as a mining enterprise itself.

  • Both states and private companies can apply at the Authority for a mining contract. Private enterprises need a state sponsor. Each licencee is legaly bound to the laws of the sponsoring country. The Authority decides on handing out licences based on submitted Work Plans, examining their financial soundness, technical feasability and an assessment whether the applicant can comply with the regulations set out for deep sea mining by the Authority. Resulting contracts will contain an agreement on royalties payable to the Authority.

  • All activities under the convention are under the jurisdiction of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany. For this purpose, the Tribunal has a specialised Seabed Disputes Chamber.

As reported, the ISA so far has not agreed on regulations. Despite this, there is a draft that has been decided on by the Council of the Authority in 2019 and that seems to be the basis on which licences will be issued for now. Whether that is enforcable is probably a matter for future court decisions.

The regulations set out a wide set of rules enterprises have to comply to. The Authority has several levels of enforcement available:

  • It can send out Inspectors to the operations. These have the right to order the suspension of mining operations, the undertaking of specific activities, the rectification of breaches of the exploitation contract or the undertaking of tests or monitoring to provide information. All these orders are restricted to a seven-day period.

  • As a result of an inspection, the Secretary-General can send a compliance notice to the contractor, ordering him to rectify a breach of contract.

  • Violations of the exploitation contract can be subject to "monetary penalties proportionate to the seriousness of the violation", set out by the Council of the Authority.

  • In cases of "serious, persistent and wilful violations of the fundamental terms" of the contract, the Council can suspend or terminate the contract.

  • For the last two measures, the contractor can appeal to the Seabed Disputes Chamber.

As a last resort, there is Article 185 of the UNCLOS:

  1. A State Party which has grossly and persistently violated the provisions of this Part may be suspended from the exercise of the rights and privileges of membership by the Assembly upon the recommendation of the Council.

  2. No action may be taken under paragraph 1 until the Seabed Disputes Chamber has found that a State Party has grossly and persistently violated the provisions of this Part.


If you are interested in the discussion about the United States accession to the UNCLOS, there is a extensive web page that tries to collect all arguments for and against.

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  • 1
    Accepted but I am thinking of asking a subsidiary question, where UN fulfilled its part of the deal - having actual regulations - in good faith. After all, 1982 - 2023 is 41 years. Deep sea mining has been talked about for decades and we still hear "need more study". These guys just sitting sunning themselves in Kingston, at taxpayer expense? Jul 14, 2023 at 16:03
  • It's more like they don't have enough taxpayer's money at their disposal. I've just reads this where the secretary-general complains about not being able at all to monitor regulation compliance. Also, there are already 22 exploration contracts in existence (exploration excluding commercial exploitation).
    – ccprog
    Jul 14, 2023 at 16:21
  • should have been whether above. I have the feeling they have not fulfilled their end of the deal and it follows the hoary old "kill something by sending it to committee" approach. If you can't deliver rules, should people be expected to wait till you bother to? Jul 14, 2023 at 16:26
  • The problem is not the committee (the Council, actually), they drafted the regulations. It is the assembly of all state parties that cannot make up its mind. There could be an argument made they wasted 12 years (82–94) on discussions with the US about governance principles within the Council, only to find they still are not ready to join.
    – ccprog
    Jul 14, 2023 at 16:40
  • 1
    Maybe you would like to hear what the ISA has to say for itself. This celebratory video on its 25th anniversary in 2019 is, as you would expect, mostly backslapping, but some commentary inbetween has some interest. The Russian representative says that the most time was lost in the twenty years before 1994, and that the Authority was actually the one to move things forward. Also it gets quite clear between the lines that the major conflict slowing the progress is which share of the revenues should be funneled to developing countries.
    – ccprog
    Jul 14, 2023 at 22:29

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