Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Deep-sea mining could start in two years after Pacific nation of Nauru gives UN ultimatum

Deep sea mining off the Papua New Guinea coast. Photograph: Nautilus minerals

From The Guardian by Kate Lyons
The International Seabed Authority has two years to finalise regulations governing the controversial industry

Deep-sea mining has been given the go-ahead to commence in two years, after the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru notified the UN body governing the nascent industry of plans to start mining.

Triggering the so-called “two-year rule”, which some have called the nuclear option, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) now has two years to finalise regulations governing the controversial industry.

If it is unable to do so, the ISA is required to allow mining contractors to begin work under whatever regulations are in place at the time.

Nauru’s president, Lionel Aingimea, notified the ISA of the intention of Nauru Ocean Resources Inc (NORI), a subsidiary of a Canadian company called DeepGreen, to apply for approval to begin mining in two years in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the North Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico.

Aingimea’s letter, dated 25 June, asked the ISA “to complete the adoption of rules, regulations, and procedures required to facilitate the approval of plans of work for exploitation in the area within two years” from 30 June.

Nauru believed draft deep-sea mining regulations were nearly complete after seven years of talks, Aingimea’s letter said.

A rare deep-sea cirrate octopod. Sir David Attenborough has backed calls for a halt to deep sea mining, which conservationists warn could have huge impacts on wildlife and climate change. Photograph: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research/PA

Environmental groups, the EU Parliament, several Pacific nations including Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and Sir David Attenborough, have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, arguing that too little is known about its impact.

Last week, more than 350 scientists from 44 countries signed a petition calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining “until sufficient and robust scientific information has been obtained”.

Jessica Desmond, Oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Aotearoa, said: “We are currently in the middle of a climate and biodiversity crisis, we know that deep sea ecosystems are some of the most important ecosystems on the planet and we are seeing this relentless and reckless push to mine these areas, despite the fact that scientists are very clearly warning us that the outcomes could be disastrous.”

“It’s very disappointing, it’s very foolhardy… and very dangerous,” said Duncan Currie, an international lawyer who has worked in oceans law for 30 years.

He represents the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition which is calling for a moratorium on deep sea mining.

Currie said the two-year rule was designed to be used if a country was ready to mine and then found their path to do so blocked by a few countries in the ISA, or if progress toward adopting regulations to govern deep-sea mining had stalled, but that neither situation was the case.

“A very important consultation is happening next week,” said Currie, in reference to a 3 July deadline for responses to draft standards and guidelines. 

“They can hardly complain that things aren’t happening when they’re happening next week.

“If we’re in a situation where a company has tested all their equipment and they’re frustrated by the regulatory environment, we might expect to see this, but we haven’t seen that.”

DeepGreen is looking to extract polymetallic nodules from the seabed.

The nodules, which resemble potatoes and are thought to take millions of years to form, are rich in manganese, nickel, cobalt and rare earth metals, key components of batteries for electric vehicles. DeepGreen argues deep-sea mining is a less environmentally and socially damaging alternative to terrestrial mining, and is crucial for transitioning to a greener economy.

Rocks called ‘polymetallic nodules’ are seen on the seabed in the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean.
Photograph: GSR/Reuters

DeepGreen is in the process of merging with blank-cheque company Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corp (SOAC) to become The Metals Company. The Metals Company plans to list on the Nasdaq in the third quarter.

But SOAC said in a filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) last week it was not yet known whether mining the seabed would have less impact on biodiversity than mining for the same quantity of metals on land.

“We cannot predict ... whether the environment and biodiversity is impacted by our activities, and if so, how long the environment and biodiversity will take to recover,” it said.

DeepGreen has deals with Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati for CCZ exploration rights covering 224,533 square km, roughly the area of Romania.

DeepGreen did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In response to questions about invoking the two-year rule for a previous story, a spokesperson told the Guardian last week that the two-year rule was “only available to sponsoring states to use, not contractors like DG, which cannot invoke it” but that it was a “a valid option available to all member states of the International Seabed Authority”.

The Nauru government did not respond to requests for comment.
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