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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Since the signing of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the creation of the International Seabed Authority, the United States of America has been a shadow partner in the growing deep-sea mining industry. Though the United States provides scientific and technical expertise, and is a de facto participant through American-owned subsidiaries incorporated in sponsoring states, the nation with the world’s second largest exclusive economic zone never ratified the core treaties and thus has limited influence at negotiations.
While the United States made significant contributions to the early development of the industry, it has been largely inactive since the mid 1980’s, focusing instead on its offshore fossil fuel resources and leaving critical minerals in the deep ocean largely untouched. Within the US EEZ surrounding the country’s Pacific territories, in particular, a push for large, remote marine protected areas in the form of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, deep-sea mining has been effectively prohibited.
The United States continues to assert claims over two large lease blocks in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, citing existing precedent from prior to the ISA’s creation, though no recent attempts have been made to exploit those blocks. The ISA, for its part, continues to hold those lease blocks in reserve, should the US eventually join all but a few nations who have ratified the Law of the Sea.
“By signing the Executive Order, President Trump declared a National Emergency and called for action to expand the domestic mining industry, support mining jobs, alleviate unnecessary permitting delays, and reduce our Nation’s dependence on China for critical minerals.” says Beverly Winston of BOEM’s Office of Public Affairs. “In the few weeks since the order was signed, leadership at relevant Department of the Interior agencies have been actively engaged in identifying specific actions that can be taken to implement the order.”
With respect to BOEM’s four-year horizon, Winston adds that “BOEM is actively collaborating with partner agencies, such as USGS and NOAA, to better understand our marine mineral resources and associated biological communities. BOEM is a member of the newly created National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization Council, and also co-chairs the Interagency Working Group on Ocean Exploration and Characterization. Both of these bodies will work to identify priority areas for exploration and characterization, and to coordinate personnel and funds to study the priority areas.”
While these moves point to increased deep-sea mining exploration within the US EEZ, they don’t provide nearly as much clarity on the United States’ future plans for the Area. In recent ISA council meetings, the US delegation has intervened to assert their existing claims in the CCZ, however no recent actions suggest an intent to attempt to exploit those claims.
Notably, the recent Executive Order is directed at the Department of the Interior, while it is the Department of Commerce, within which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is housed, who would initiate any exploration or exploitation in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction.
“Currently under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA),” concludes Winston, “BOEM’s leasing authority is limited to the Outer Continental Shelf offshore the coastal states. NOAA is the implementing agency for the Deep Sea Hard Minerals Resource Act, which establishes an interim domestic licensing and permitting regime for deep seabed hard mineral exploration and mining beyond the EEZ pending adoption of an acceptable international regime.”
Though the election of President-Elect Joe Biden will likely have substantial influence on future priorities for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, it is too early to know, according to BOEM representatives, how a new administration will impact critical minerals policy. With a core policy focus on climate change, it is almost certain that securing access to the critical minerals necessary to building next-generation energy infrastructure will remain a priority for the next administration.
The disaster continues in Mauritius. With the cleanup and salvage well underway, Mauritius has begun assessing the broader impacts of the disastrous bulk carrier wreck. Fishermen have reported seeing 30 to 30 dead dolphins floating in a lagoon near the wreckage including mothers and calfs. Dead whales, as well as sick and injured whales, are also being recovered close to the site of the spill.
Holy Mola we are back! Bass my flounder for I have finned. It has been Half A Year since I last posted anything on Southern Fried Science. Granted, that year is 2020, so I think we can all give each other all the slack we need. I have missed this place, my weekly ocean news round ups, and my less frequent deep dives into ocean science, conservation, and exploration. So let’s get back to it: What the heck is up with the ocean this week?
We still don’t know how to assess the impacts of deep-sea mining. In Deep-Sea Misconceptions Cause Underestimation of Seabed-Mining Impacts, Smith and friends outline the numerous potential misconceptions that may dramatically affect our estimations of the impact of deep-sea mining. These misconceptions include the scale of the operation, the rate of recovery, and the compounding impacts of other human-induced insults to the seafloor.
Upwelling (the part where Andrew gets on his soapbox)
Yesterday, the President signed the Great American Outdoors Act, a largely bipartisan effort to dramatically increase funding for land conservation across the US; an act that was necessary following decades of Republican leadership gutting funding for the National Parks Service and deferring essential repairs. The $9 billion in funding for deferred maintenance will go towards offsetting over $12 billion in critical repairs that have accumulated since the 1980s, the last decade in which the Park Service budget was significantly increased. It also guarantees almost $1 billion per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is predominantly funded though royalty payments from offshore oil and gas.
It’s a great law made necessary by decades of leadership failure.
Saltiness aside, it comes at a time when access to the outdoors could not be more essential. With the country in the midst of an historic pandemic and travel significantly curtailed, access to green space is at a premium. And, unsurprisingly, nature deficit disproportionately affects historically marginalized communities, particularly those within urban areas where vast green spaces come in the form of literal walled gardens.
Even with the Great American Outdoors Act, this administration has done more to destroy the environment than any modern presidency, and we can only hope that this will help lay the groundwork for the next president’s Green (and Blue) Awakening.