The world is arguing over deep-sea mining

Diplomats are today (Monday) meeting at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in Jamaica, debating how to handle deep-sea mining in international waters. The marathon talks will run for three weeks.

Deep-sea mining is a nascent industry that involves ships hoovering potato-sized ‘nodules’ of metal off the seabed via 4km hoses.

Why are countries debating this industry now?

  • 🏝️ In 2021, the tiny nation of Nauru used an arcane rule to oblige the ISA to finalise deep-sea mining regulations within two years, but
  • ⏲️ That deadline expired yesterday (Sunday) without agreed rules, so the ISA’s 168 members are now debating what to do next.

And it’s unleashed a fair bit of tension. Supporters of deep-sea mining say:

  • ⚡ The sector is essential to supplying the key metals needed for our energy transition, to help address climate change
  • 👷 It’s a way for small nations to generate jobs and income, and
  • 🇨🇳 It can reduce the world’s over-reliance on China’s metals sector.

Opponents of deep-sea mining say:

  • 🐟 It’ll put a vast and little-understood ecosystem at risk
  • ⛏️ There are already enough proven metal deposits on land, and
  • 🔋 The tech sector is phasing out some of these metals anyway.

Intrigue’s take: We don’t envy the delegates tasked with finding a way forward here. The issues are genuinely tricky.

And things are getting heated: Germany has accused the ISA boss of pro-mining bias; others are querying whether a pause (as proposed by Chile) is legal; and there’s talk of referring the whole debate to an international court.

Still, the world has managed to ink treaties for other frontiers, like the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. So, surely we can do it again in the deep blue.

Also worth noting:

  • Mining companies need a country sponsor to apply for ISA permits. Nauru works closely with The Metals Company, a Vancouver-based start-up which aims to start deep-sea mining next year.
  • Various major companies – like Google, BMW, Volvo, and Samsung – have committed not to use deep-sea metals in their products.
  • Norwegian lawmakers moved last month to greenlight deep-sea mining projects in the country’s exclusive economic zone.
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