Two Years of Deep-sea Mining in Review: Has pulling the Trigger already backfired?

As in-person negotiations on the future of exploitation in the deep ocean resume this week in Kingston Jamaica, we reflect back on the last two years of development as reported on our sister site, the Deep-sea Mining Observer. This article first appeared on August 26, 2021.


The Republic of Nauru turned the deep-sea mining world on its head this summer when it invoked Article 15, colloquially known as the Trigger, starting a 2-year countdown on the finalization of mining regulations for polymetallic nodules in areas beyond national jurisdiction. This countdown means that commercial deep-sea mining could potentially commence within 3 years. But that commencement depends on a suite of benchmarks, both procedural and technological, that have yet to be met. 

While Nauru and its deep-sea mining contractor, Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (a wholly owned subsidiary of The Metals Company), emphasize the urgency of unlocking seafloor metals to accelerate the transition to a fossil fuel-free future, many stakeholders have expressed surprise at what they feel is a premature invocation of a rule designed to prevent oppositional member states from stonewalling progress on a mining code. 

The two year clock doesn’t guarantee that a mining code will be complete within that time frame, but rather that either the mining code be finalized or a submitted Plan of Work be considered by the Council based on current and best-available standards and guidelines. Though The Metals Company has stated in the past that it would not support invoking Article 15 unless it was certain it had the backing of the majority of the Council, those political winds could easily change in the next three years, and the Council retains the authority to reject a Plan of Work. 

It remains to be seen whether and if a mining code drafted under ticking clock of the two-year countdown will be more or less amenable to the preferences of deep-sea mining contractors and their sponsor states, but initial responses from delegations representing ISA Council members, the Legal and Technical Commission, and observers suggest that invoking Article 15 is just as likely to backfire on the Republic of Nauru and The Metals Company. 

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Two Years of Deep-sea Mining in Review: A pivotal moment in the history of deep-sea mining

As in-person negotiations on the future of exploitation in the deep ocean resume this week in Kingston Jamaica, we reflect back on the last two years of development as reported on our sister site, the Deep-sea Mining Observer. This article first appeared on June 30, 2021.


The spring and summer of 2021 will likely stand as the pivotal moment in the history of deep-sea mining. Months of intense protest amidst significant at-sea progress on environmental impact studies and prototype testing were capped off earlier this week by the explosive announcement that the Republic of Nauru, sponsoring state of Nauru Ocean Resources Inc, a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Metals Company (formerly DeepGreen), was invoking Article 15 triggering the 2-year countdown to complete the Mining Code.

An apparent sea change in the relationship between mining contractors, environmental NGOs, and other stakeholders, began in late March, when the Worldwide Fund for Nature announced a new campaign to get major corporations to pledge to exclude minerals produced from the deep sea from their supply chains until the impacts to the ocean were more thoroughly understood. These companies included BMW and Volvo, which have a major stake in electric vehicle manufacturing, and Samsung SDI, who produce small cell lithium batteries for electronic devices. 

That announcement came just days before both GSR and The Metals Company were preparing for at-sea campaigns to continue their environmental baseline work and prototype nodule collector testing in the Clarion Clipperton Zone. The Metals Company’s Expedition 5B was one of several research cruises conducted over the last few years as part of a comprehensive plan to characterize the ecosystems, including pelagic communities, around their polymetallic nodule leases in the NORI-D contract areas and assess the potential impacts of their eventual nodule extraction operations. As DeepGreen, The Metals Company had previously lent the use of their ship, the Maersk Launcher, to the high seas plastic collection program The Ocean Cleanup

Only days later, GSR launched its own four-week research campaign in collaboration with  the EU MiningImpact program. During a month at sea, they tested the Patania II nodule collector prototype. The Patania II did suffer an engineering failure during sea trials which left the collector detached on the seafloor for several days before successful recovery to the surface, a scenario which is not unexpected during prototype testing. “This is pioneering engineering work and we were prepared for multiple eventualities.” said Kris Van Nijen, Managing Director of GSR in a press release. “…we were able to reconnect Patania II and we look forward to completing the mission, including further deployments of Patania II.”

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Two Years of Deep-sea Mining in Review: What happens when we pull the trigger?

As in-person negotiations on the future of exploitation in the deep ocean resume this week in Kingston Jamaica, we reflect back on the last two years of development as reported on our sister site, the Deep-sea Mining Observer. This article first appeared on November 19, 2021.


Throughout the 26th Session of the International Seabed Authority, during both the council meeting and via media interviews, deep-sea mining contractors have begun to talk about “the trigger”. The trigger is a protocol within UNCLOS which would allow sponsoring states to jumpstart the deep-sea mining process, placing a ticking clock on the development of the mining exploitation regulations. Annex I, Section 1(15) of the 1994 Agreement on the Implementation of Part XI of UNCLOS (colloquially referred to as “Article 15” or more informally, “the trigger”) allows a sponsoring state to expedite the current mining code negotiations by submitting a plan of work for a contractor that is imminently ready to begin production. 

Article 15 lays out the conditions under which a sponsoring state could initiate deep-sea mining in the Area absent a finalized mining code. If a sponsoring state submits a plan of work for a commercial deep-sea mining operation, that action starts a two-year countdown. If there is no approved code by the two-year deadline, the contractor and sponsoring state can move forward with exploitation in accordance with their own submitted plan of work and a set of provisional regulations that have been approved by the Council. 

“Without this provision,” says Pradeep Singh of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, “it was technically possible pursuant to UNCLOS for one or a few Council members to deploy filibuster tactics to frustrate or impede the adoption of key regulations. With the introduction of this provision and in the context of exploitation activities, it is possible for a member state of the Authority to request for exploitation regulations to be adopted by the Council within a prescribed period of two years from the date of the request, failing which, it would still have to consider any application submitted for exploitation activities despite the absence of the said regulations.”

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Two Years of Deep-sea Mining in Review: ISA rushes forward

As in-person negotiations on the future of exploitation in the deep ocean resume this week in Kingston Jamaica, we reflect back on the last two years of development as reported on our sister site, the Deep-sea Mining Observer. This editorial first appeared on September 30, 2021.


Opinion by Andrew Thaler, DSMO Editor-in-Chief

The International Seabed Authority published their provisional roadmap for the next two years of international negotiations, optimistically culminating with the approval of the Mining Code for polymetallic nodules in areas beyond national jurisdiction. This ambitious goal depends upon the ability to resume ISA sessions in Kingston, a scenario that continues to be unlikely, with many participants and stakeholders expressing doubt that in-person meetings will resume before boreal summer 2022. 

The ISA hopes to get at least a few delegations to return to Jamaica before the end of the year. As part of their new schedule, they expect to hold a much-abridged meeting of the Assembly and Council this December. The ISA is encouraging member states to send small delegations of no more than 2 individuals or use already in-country representatives from existing permanent missions. Observers are limited to sending a single individual. Even with a smaller format, several stakeholders have expressed doubts that the ISA will be able to gather enough members for a quorum. 

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Two Years of Deep-sea Mining in Review: Deep-sea Mining has Time.

As in-person negotiations on the future of exploitation in the deep ocean resume this week in Kingston Jamaica, we reflect back on the last two years of development as reported on our sister site, the Deep-sea Mining Observer. This editorial first appeared on August 27, 2021.


Opinion by Andrew Thaler, DSMO Editor-in-Chief

As we enter the final quarter of 2021, with a global pandemic still raging across all but a few countries and impacting supply chains and critical work throughout the world, it looks increasingly unlikely that an in-person session of the ISA will be possible before 2022, marking two years of substantially diminished progress on the development of the mining code and increasing frustration among stakeholders. Some of the most important voices at the negotiating table continue to struggle to get the latest outbreak under control. India, Russia, the UK, and Japan are not only among the top ten countries with the most new Covid cases as of this week but are ISA member states that sponsor mining contractors (at least one other contractor-sponsoring member state has stopped reporting new cases, while the United States, though not a member state, is also in the midst of a pandemic surge and contributes capacity and expertise to ISA negotiations).

In light of this global progress slowdown, not just for deep-sea mining, but among a host of international challenges and objectives, the push for urgency among some mining contractors and sponsoring states simply does not add up.

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Two Years of Deep-sea Mining in Review: The Precarious Partnership Between Deep-sea Mining Contractors and Environmental NGOs

As in-person negotiations on the future of exploitation in the deep ocean resume this week in Kingston Jamaica, we reflect back on the last two years of development as reported on our sister site, the Deep-sea Mining Observer. This editorial first appeared on June 25, 2021.


Opinion by Andrew Thaler, DSMO Editor-in-Chief

Deep-sea mining occupies a unique niche in the annals of extractive exploration. Its modern manifestation owes as much to the surging demand of critical minerals as it does to the work of environmental organizations shining a light on the vast environmental and ethical catastrophes of terrestrial mining. In its current form, deep-sea mining is an industry motivated by the need to rapidly wean ourselves from fossil fuels. It is, in short, an industrial response to an environmental crisis. 

Whether or not it is the right response, for whatever “right” means in the midst of a global crisis while the clock is ticking, remains to be proven. No plans of work have been approved and no mining licenses have been issued by the International Seabed Authority for Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. What few attempts have been made in territorial waters have not reached production or have collapsed under the complexity of the operation. Deep-sea mining is an industry that has been perpetually just over the horizon. That horizon creeps closer every year.

There is an precarious partnership between deep-sea mining contractors and environmental NGOs, two entities with wildly differing views of what the world needs to reach sustainable development, but a recognition, at least in principle, that negotiation and compromise are possible. Even the calls for moratoria leave room for the possibility that deep-sea mining can be shown to be sustainable.

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Two Years of Deep-sea Mining in Review: A 3-decade-long disturbance study on the deep abyssal plain.

As in-person negotiations on the future of exploitation in the deep ocean resume this week in Kingston Jamaica, we reflect back on the last two years of development as reported on our sister site, the Deep-sea Mining Observer. This article first appeared on May 22, 2020.


In the late 1980s, as the first wave of deep-sea mining exploration approached a decade of hibernation, researchers launched an ambitious experiment to understand the long-term environmental impact of harvesting polymetallic nodules from the abyssal plain. The Disturbance and recolonization experiment in a manganese nodule area of the deep South Pacific (DISCOL) remains the most ambitious attempt to understand how nodule extraction affects deep ocean ecosystems. Though interest (and funding) waxed and waned with the prevailing interest in deep-sea mining, now, more than 30 years later, DISCOL provides the only large, multi-decade impact study from which contractors, regulators, and environmental advocacy groups can draw inferences about the recovery and resilience of deep-sea ecosystems following mining-induced disturbances throughout the lifetime of an ISA-issued mining exploration or exploitation lease. 

The 1980s saw a surge in interest for deep-sea mining. The successful early campaigns of the late 1970s, bolstered by CIA funding for Project Azorian, presented a future of seemingly limitless profit scattered across the seafloor. That the early financial projections were supported by covert government funding was not yet widely known, and, even for those who were privy to the operation, regardless of initial funding the value had been established, the ship built, the technology sea-trialed. The profit potential was there. What was still tabula rasa was the environmental consequences of extraction on an almost completely unknown ecosystem.

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Two Years of Deep-sea Mining in Review: Confusion and Gridlock at the 26th Session of the International Seabed Authority

As in-person negotiations on the future of exploitation in the deep ocean resume this week in Kingston Jamaica, we reflect back on the last two years of development as reported on our sister site, the Deep-sea Mining Observer. This article first appeared two years ago, on March 19, 2020.


The 26th Session of the International Seabed Authority convened this February to continue the long and complex negotiations over the draft Mining Code and work towards consensus among the various stakeholders. 2020 was set as the target year to get the Mining Code finalized, but many delegates left Jamaica feeling frustrated with the pace of deliberations and a growing sense that the 2020 deadline was far too optimistic. Chief among the challenges was a recognition that the Council is now further from reaching agreement on the financial model than it was at the end of the 25th Session and a lack of clarity over the composition of the Legal and Technical Commission as it pertains to the representation of both geographic distribution and technical expertise.

Procedural Gridlock slows negotiations

The overwhelming sentiment of member state delegates, NGO’s, and even contractors was a sense of dysfunction and confusion, best highlighted by the fact that over a 5-day meeting, the Council went through three new presidents. First, as outgoing Council President Lumka Yengeni was absent from the meeting, outgoing regional Vice-president Luis del Solar assumed the chair to preside over the selection of a new council president. Usually, a Regional Group arrives at the ISA with a nominee for council president already prepared. Not this time. A three hour delay to select the president of the 26th Session of the ISA on the morning of the first day set the tone for the week. 

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Two Years of Deep-sea Mining in Review: As deep-sea mining inches towards production, a global pandemic brings negotiations to a halt.

As in-person negotiations on the future of exploitation in the deep ocean resume this week in Kingston Jamaica, we reflect back on the last two years of development as reported on our sister site, the Deep-sea Mining Observer. This article first appeared two years ago, on March 18, 2020.


When the first part of 26th Session of the International Seabed Authority convened last month, there was a new stakeholder impacting the pace of deliberations. COVID-19 had just begun to spread beyond China and nations across the world were limiting travel in the hopes of containing the outbreak. With Jamaica imposing a 14-day quarantine on any traveler coming from China, the Chinese delegation was notably absent, with a delegation from the New York mission standing in for their colleagues. But they weren’t the only delegation affected. Multiple delegates whose travel was supported by the Commonwealth we’re also unable to attend. 

Though those absences did slow down deliberations and cast a pallor over the proceedings, they were nothing compared with what happened next. 

Earlier this week, Forbes published a contributor article entitled “Will Ocean Seabed Mining Delay The Discovery Of Potential Coronavirus Vaccines?” Though hyperbolic in its reaction to an industry which has yet to even begin production, ironically Forbes may have gotten the situation reversed: long before deep-sea mining has even the remote potential to delay the development of novel pharmaceuticals, the COVID-19 pandemic will almost certainly delay the development of deep-sea mining. 

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Getting your kids started in conservation technology: a quick guide for parents who have no idea where to begin.

Southern Fried Science has been a bit dormant for the last year, so first, a re-introduction:

I’m Andrew Thaler, I’m an ocean scientist, and I make weird tech things.

Ten years ago I inherited an old mechanical tide gauge from a lab cleanout. For some bizarre reason, I thought: what if, instead of tracking the rising and falling tides in the Beaufort Inlet, it tracked the waxing and waning of conversations about sea level rise on Twitter. And thus, the Sea Leveler was born. 

In a lot of ways, the Sea Leveler was the precursor of things to come. It was exhaustively documented and released as an open-source project on GitHub. It merged the digital with the physical, creating an object that allowed you to connect an online conversation to the real-world environment through repurposed technology. It was weird. And it was fun. 

The Sea Leveler itself was passed on to a good friend and champion of ocean outreach, but its legacy lives on in the plethora of projects to follow: Drown Your Town, Dolphin Vision, the reStepper, Turtle Borg, and, of course, the OpenCTD

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