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Deep Sea Mining Talks Spark Debate on ISA Reform

The International Seabed Authority’s governance and voting structure “profoundly undemocratic”. 

As governments continue to clash over the possibility of deep sea mining (DSM) in international waters, industry experts are calling for the reform of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to better protect our seas and oceans from environmental and biodiversity-related threats.  

The ISA negotiations taking place in Jamaica this month follow a 2021 request for the authority to finalise rules and regulations on DSM. The ISA is responsible for governing and regulating activities involving seabeds, ocean floors and subsoils outside of national jurisdictions. 

The request was submitted by the island nation Nauru and triggered a two-year countdown that expired on 9 July, “with the ISA’s 167 member states now being led by the nose by just a handful of companies and countries that are pushing for DSM”, said Matthew Gianni, Co-Founder and Political and Policy Advisor for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.  

These companies and countries are now technically allowed to submit applications for DSM exploitation licences.  

Gianni has told ESG Investor that the ISA’s current governance and voting structure is ill-equipped to mitigate the potential risks DSM poses to marine ecosystems.  

“The ISA’s voting structure gives the minority huge advantages, meaning that a company wanting a DSM exploitation licence will be able to get one if it secures support from as few as two to 13 countries, even if there is opposition from the majority of ISA members,” he said. 

“These rules need to change. They are arcane, anachronistic, and way out of step – profoundly undemocratic. The ISA is almost constitutionally incapable of saying ‘no’ to a DSM licence, meaning everybody and their brother will be able to pile into this industry, doing unimaginable damage.” 

Jessica Battle, Lead of WWF International’s No Deep Seabed Mining initiative, is also attending discussions in Jamaica. She said some states have put together a proposal to ensure that a request put to the ISA Council must secure a two-thirds majority, “so it will be harder to say ‘yes’ than to say ‘no’, which isn’t currently the case”.  

In March, the New York Times reported that some ISA state delegates were concerned by the ISA Secretary General’s lack of impartiality, alleging that Michael Lodge has a pro-mining agenda and has been pushing diplomats on the ISA Council to accelerate the start of DSM. Lodge countered allegations in a letter to Germany’s Parliamentary State Secretary Dr Franziska Brantner. 

Final rules on DSM have yet to be finalised. On 21 July, ISA member nations agreed on a two-year roadmap for the adoption of DSM regulations, which it noted is an indicative target rather than a deadline. 

On the expired two-year deadline, the ISA Council will further consider actions that it may take if an application is submitted before the ISA has completed work on DSM regulations. 

This week, the ISA Assembly will gather for further discussion.  

“The Assembly is likely to debate the structure of the ISA, and what the future of the ISA will be,” said Gianni, adding that Chile also has a proposal tabled calling for no issuing of DSM licences for two years. The latter would ensure Council members “no longer feel they are under the gun to come up with regulations”, he noted.  

Stop digging 

A growing number of NGOs, countries, companies and financial institutions are calling for a moratorium on DSM. 

“There are so many unknowns, and it will take decades of scientific research to understand the true extent of biodiversity and environment-related ramifications DSM will have,” said Battle.  

A recent report published by financial think tank Planet Tracker noted that the potential benefits of DSM, such as unearthing critical minerals needed for the climate transition, are far outweighed by the environmental costs.  

Planet Tracker estimated that the total biosphere that could be negatively impacted by nodule mining in abyssal plains in international waters would be between 25-75 cubic kilometres, which is more than the volume of all freshwater globally, including ice and snow.  

Japan conducted DSM testing back in 2020. Analysis of seabed ecology a year after the first successful extraction of cobalt crusts from deep sea mountains found that marine life in the impacted area had more than halved. 

“The science is absolutely crystal clear that the risk of species extinction is high and there will be substantial damage to marine environments,” said Gianni from the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. 

Last week, a group of 36 financial institutions, collectively managing €3.3 trillion in assets, published a joint statement urging governments to not proceed with DSM until the environmental, social and economic risks are understood.  

Further, a number of global companies have signed a public statement of support for a moratorium on DSM, committing to not sourcing minerals from the deep seabed or financing DSM activities. 

Over 20 countries have also called for a ban, moratorium or precautionary pause on DSM, including Brazil, Finland and Portugal.  

However, there are governments that sponsor DSM companies, including Norway, Russia, the UK, India, Japan, and the Cook Islands.  

In June, the Norwegian government further issued a proposal to open its waters to DSM, citing the need for critical minerals to facilitate the country’s net zero transition.  

“Norway is worried about stranded oil and gas assets,” said Gianni, noting that they are “moving from one hugely destructive industry to another, which is completely irresponsible”. 

A number of countries have yet to declare their position on DSM, Battle from WWF International noted, urging governments to join the call for a DSM moratorium. 

“The issue goes beyond DSM,” said Gianni. 

“It’s about whether the nations of the world are mature enough to recognise that we need to address the planetary problems we’ve caused and are continuing to exacerbate. Why are we debating whether or not to add another problem to the list?  

“A global agreement to ban DSM could give the world some hope.” 

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