Podcast: Is the UN body in charge of our ocean floor capable of protecting it?

The fourth and last episode of Mining the Deep by Sustainable Asia asks if the world is really ready to start mining the deep seabed

The remotely operated Deep Discoverer examines a coral colony on the almost wholly unexplored Mytilus Seamount in the Atlantic (Image: NOAA)

To mine the seabed under international waters, companies like DeepGreen need a licence from the UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA). So far, only exploration licences have been granted. The ISA has put a hold on the actual extraction of minerals until they’ve completed their Mining Code: an unprecedented set of regulations to control what happens on the international seabed in an effort to ensure mining benefits everyone. This code has been in the works for nearly two decades. But with time now running out on its exploration licences, the ISA is facing increasing pressure to push the code through and let mining begin. Is the world ready for this? And, given the powerful influence of mining interests and the inability of civil society to oversee what’s happening at the ISA, is this UN body really up to the task of protecting our ocean floors?

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More episodes:

Episode One
Episode Two 
Episode Three 

Guests:

Matthew Gianni, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition
Duncan Currie, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition
Gerard Barron, DeepGreen
Gregory Stone, DeepGreen
David Santillo, Greenpeace
Helen Rosenbaum, Deep Sea Mining Campaign
Richard Steiner, Environmental Consultant

Production credits:

Executive producer and host: Marcy Trent Long
Producer: Samuel Colombie
Sound engineer: Chris Wood
Intro/outro music: Alex Mauboussin

Transcript:

Marcy Trent Long: Welcome to Mining the Deep, a podcast series by Sustainable Asia. My name is Marcy Trent Long.

In episode one, we learned about the potential for seabed mining to fuel our renewable energy needs, but also how this mining could threaten the wondrous ecosystems that populate the ocean floor. In episode two, we talked about the first real effort to start seabed mining, the tragic Solwara 1 project, and how it led to several countries closing off their national waters [to] seabed mining. In episode three, we joined DeepGreen on the high seas. Their methods of mining might well be less impactful than land-based mining, but we need to make sure we’re not just burdening our fragile planet with a whole new extractive industry on top of what we’re already doing.

Michael Lodge: The fundamental concept of the Law of the Sea is that deep seabed mining is only allowed to take place under contract to the International Seabed Authority.

Marcy: Michael Lodge, the secretary general of the Seabed Authority, from a speech he gave for an NGO, Pew Charitable Trusts, in 2017.

Michael: The consequence of this is that the default position is that the seabed is off limits to mining except were expressly permitted, following a lengthy process of approval. In that sense, one could say that everything is protected.

Marcy: In the 90s, the UN established a special body to regulate seabed mining. That’s this International Seabed Authority [or] ISA that we keep mentioning. Here’s Matthew Gianni of Deep Sea Conservation Coalition to explain its role.

Matthew Gianni: The Seabed Authority is an important institution in order to maintain a governance structure over what otherwise would be a free-for-all for mining in the deep ocean.

Marcy: In this episode, we’ll discover what is wrong with the ISA and the way it’s currently working. But it’s important to keep in mind: without the ISA, anyone would just be able to go out and dig up the ocean floor.

Marcy: So let’s stick with DeepGreen as an example here. DeepGreen wants to mine an area in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, a huge patch of seabed in the high seas between Hawaii and Mexico. But to do that, they needed a licence from the Seabed Authority. Environmental lawyer Duncan Currie…

Duncan Currie: How it works is that you have to have a sponsoring state. And so in the case of DeepGreen, the sponsoring state is Nauru for one of their subsidiaries, Nauru Ocean Resources.

Marcy: Nauru Ocean Resources Inc., or NORI. Because only countries can apply for a licence with the Seabed Authority, DeepGreen approached this tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru and partnered up to create the company NORI. The Seabed Authority gave NORI a licence to go explore, find out what nodules are there, and see if they think it’s worth it to start up a mining operation.

Gerard Barron: So we talk about NORI… We currently have exploration licences, and they run for 15 years.

Marcy: For 15 years, no other country can explore that area, as DeepGreen CEO Gerard Barron explains.

Gerard: They allow us an exclusive right to move to an exploitation licence… unfortunate words… or an extraction licence.

Marcy: When a country thinks they’ve got enough information to start mining, they can then apply for an exploitation licence.

Gerard: And that will run for 30 years with renewable periods.

Marcy: So far, no country has received an exploitation license. So no mining has taken place in the open ocean. That’s because the Seabed Authority first needs to decide on the rules for mining, like the environmental standards that need to be met or how much should be paid to the United Nations to mine the seabed. This set of rules is what’s known as the Mining Code, and it has been in the works for nearly two decades. The first draft of the code, signed in 2000, included rules for exploring nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone. But now, we’re on to extraction, and in the words of Seabed Authority boss, Michael Lodge…

Michael: We have a unique opportunity to get it right. In fact, this is probably the best regulated industry that hasn’t happened yet.

Gregory Stone: You know, if we were to wipe the slate clean, and say: “Hey everybody, there’s a resource at the bottom of the ocean in the high seas. How should we approach it?” Well, one might say: “I think that we should set up something that everybody on the earth is part of [and] has a say in. And something that takes on as much as we can, the lessons we’ve learned over the years, the need for the precautionary approach,” which is exactly what’s happened.

Marcy: What Gregory Stone of DeepGreen is saying is that if the Seabed Authority does it right, and sets appropriate, stringent rules, we can actually secure the minerals for our renewable revolution in a more environmentally-friendly and fair way than we’ve done in the past. If they do it right…

David Santillo: At a time when so many contracts have been issued for exploration, when people are talking more and more about moving to exploitation, to developing the guidelines for regulating that, we’re still a long way from understanding exactly how the International Seabed Authority will apply those rules and what kinds of requirements it will be placing through its requirements for impact assessments.

Marcy: The Seabed Authority has granted an exploration license to 21 contractors. More than half of these are for areas in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, where DeepGreen is also looking for nodules. So that’s 21 stakeholders waiting on the Seabed Authority to finish the Mining Code so extraction can begin.

We just heard [Dr] David Santillo of Greenpeace, but he isn’t the only one concerned with how [the] Seabed Authority is rushing the regulations. So let’s find out what needs to go in that Mining Code and how far along we are now. First up is the fascinating concept of shared benefits. When the United Nations wrote the Law of the Sea, they decided that any activity in the high seas should benefit all of mankind. So any profits from deep seabed mining should technically benefit everyone.

Matthew:  A number of countries, Chile being amongst them, South Africa is another, are concerned over the impact that that will have on their terrestrial mining operations and economies.

Marcy: These countries have their own land-based mines that will go in direct competition. And when that happens, common minerals like copper might lose some of its worth.

Duncan: It’s certainly one of the scenarios. Once seabed mining takes place, the prices either stabilise or drop considerably because of the quantities being produced from the ocean. And if that was the case, then there could be significant economic dislocation from those terrestrial, or those land-based mining countries.

Marcy: South Africa for instance, depends on mining for about 10% of its economy. The Democratic Republic of Congo? 22%. Nearly all export revenue from Congo actually comes from copper, cobalt and other mining ores.

Matthew: There are provisions in the Law of the Sea Convention that basically say that the International Seabed Authority should not issue or allow seabed mining to take place to such an extent that it has an adverse impact on the economies of developing countries that rely for a significant portion of their economic activity on terrestrial mining for the same metals.

Marcy: So the Mining Code will need to find a way to compensate these countries for their loss. That’s a tough nut to crack.

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Marcy: Another issue in the Mining Code that will be hard to solve is liability. So let’s go back to DeepGreen. If they mess up and cause environmental damage, Nauru is the one who has to clean it up.

Duncan: That leaves a gap. I mean, for example, if NORI and DeepGreen were to run out of money, leaving potentially hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage, then there would be no one there to pick up the pieces.

Marcy: So that’s another thing to clear up in the Mining Code. One more. Let’s look at environmental impact assessment. [So let’s say] DeepGreen has finished exploring, they return to the Seabed Authority with their report detailing what damage can be expected for the ecosystem that lives on those nodules. Who checks those findings? Is there a list of things DeepGreen needs to follow?

Matthew: One of the problems that we have, as NGOs, as civil society organisations, with the ISA is that the contracts that the ISA has issued for exploration are completely confidential. And all of the reports that these contractors have to supply to the International Seabed Authority on an annual basis on what they’ve done the previous year and what they’ve done to fulfil the conditions of the contract, including in relation to environmental baseline information, are also confidential. These contracts are being issued on your behalf and my behalf and all of our behalves. And we have a right to know what’s in them.

Marcy: Hmm, so there is no way for environmental groups to look into these contracts and make their own evaluation of the impact these might have on the environment.

Duncan: The Legal and Technical Commission, which has responsibility for almost all of this, right now meets behind closed doors.

Marcy: The Legal and Technical Commission. That’s the committee responsible for checking the exploration reports and granting the licences to companies like DeepGreen.

Matthew: There is no record of the details, of the discussions, or the debates within the Legal and Technical Commission over why they’re making recommendations and on the basis of what they justify these recommendations. Every country that has applied for an exploration licence on behalf of a company or a state-owned enterprise has gotten a licence, has gotten a recommendation for a licence, from the Legal and Technical Commission, and the council has never rejected a single application or recommendation of the Legal and Technical Commission.

Marcy: So the Legal and Technical Commission has never declined a licence? Why does this commission seem so pro-mining?

Matthew: That body consists of 30 people who are nominated by the countries that are members of the council of the ISA, a large number of which are very much in support of the International Seabed Authority transitioning from exploration to commercial mining, to exploitation of the mineral resources of the deep ocean.

Marcy: So the countries that are members of the Seabed Authority nominate the Legal and Technical Commission.

Matthew: At the moment, there are 167 countries plus the European Union that are technically members of the International Seabed Authority. Any country that has ratified the Law of the Sea Convention is already a party, or a member, automatically of the International Seabed Authority. But every year, less than half of those countries show up for meetings of the Seabed Authority.

Marcy: And the countries that do show up to the Seabed Authority meetings, they of course tend to be the ones that have something to gain from seabed mining. So it seems like there should be a role here for civil society groups to attend the commission meetings to see whether what’s being discussed will truly benefit all of us. Dr Helen Rosenbaum of Deep Sea Mining Campaign explains the problem here.

Helen Rosenbaum: There are a limited number of civil society organisations that have observer status at the general assembly of the International Seabed Authority, but civil society is blocked out of the Legal and Technical Committee. There are often workshops held that are facilitated by the Legal and Technical Committee that company representatives can attend, but civil society members can’t.

Marcy: Mining interests not only attend these meetings and workshops…

Richard Steiner: The mineral industries have been front and centre there for decades, presenting their objectives.

Marcy: That’s Richard Steiner, the scientist who worked with grassroots groups against Nautilus in Papua New Guinea.

Richard: And they’ve pretty much got the system wrapped around their little fingers. And they pretty much get what they want from it. And it looks like a legitimate process. But I really worry that it is captured by industry.

Marcy: There are some really interesting examples of the Seabed Authority working closely with mining companies like DeepGreen.

Helen: The government of Nauru allowed Gerard Barron from DeepGreen to take its position at the International Seabed Authority to make a representation to the ISA. And Gerard Barron used that as an opportunity to also try and push the ISA to develop the regulations as quickly as possible, and for these to be corporate friendly.

Marcy: So while civil society can barely attend these meetings, mining interests have a seat at the negotiating table. And DeepGreen and Seabed Authority Secretary General Michael Lodge have even stronger ties.

Helen: Michael Lodge also appears in corporate advertising videos for DeepGreen. Videos that are looking to gain the interest of investors.

Michael Lodge in DeepGreen video: Land-based resources are becoming increasingly difficult to access. We’ve taken the best resources already. Future resources are in more remote places…

Helen: So with Michael Lodge firmly on their team, it’s a little bit hard to think that the organisation that he’s the general secretary of is going to be impartial in its development of regulations. It raises the whole issue of accountability at the United Nations level. Surely there must be some guidelines in place, or some code of conduct, that the general secretaries of United Nations agencies like the Seabed Authority are supposed to follow. It just seems totally outrageous that this organisation’s general secretary does advertising for DeepGreen. It’s for that reason we have no faith in the regulations that will be developed by the ISA protecting the interests that it should protect: those of the environment and those of the people and communities who will be affected by seabed mining.

Marcy: Throughout this podcast, we’ve seen the destruction that deep seabed mining might lead to. The responsibility for regulating this industry is in the hands of the Seabed Authority, which is being pushed by mining interests to deliver the Mining Code as soon as possible so exploitation licenses can be granted and mining can begin.

Matthew: One of the drivers of deep seabed mining that are hardwired into the International Seabed Authority is the possibility, the potential for a “use it or lose it” approach.

Marcy: The Seabed Authority first handed out exploration licenses in 2001. China, Korea, Japan and Russia were among the first to receive a licence。 Now in 2021, these countries will have to decide: will they apply for an extraction license, or will they give up their claim and let another country take that patch of seabed?

Matthew: A number of countries may decide, even if it’s not commercially viable, to go ahead and start mining, subsidise the mining in the interest of maintaining control over the area that they have the contract.

Marcy: So there is a clear incentive to get this Mining Code done sooner rather than later. Can we trust the Seabed Authority to establish a thorough Mining Code and to choose conservation over profit? Greenpeace scientist David Santillo is doubtful.

David: It’s a UN-based body under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. And the Convention on the Law of the Sea should be primarily about protecting our oceans and protecting the species and habitats there. And I feel that the International Seabed Authority, unfortunately, has kind of lost its way a bit in terms of its mandate. And it seems to be much more motivated towards enabling seabed mining than it is towards protecting those species and habitats from any kind of human activity.

Marcy: But Dr Gregory Stone of DeepGreen refutes that.

Gregory: It is a UN-democratised system. So there’s opportunity for countries that don’t agree with it to intervene and change it, vote against it. It’s been a very long and thoughtful process. I mean, never in the history of any extractive industry has there been this much time and forethought put into it, as there has with this. So the actual process and framework and regulatory body, while not perfect, is pretty much in the right direction that it should be.

Marcy: Next year, the UN Decade of Ocean Science kicks off. For 10 years, the United Nations claims it will dedicate funds specifically to advance our knowledge of the deep sea. Conservation groups have rallied behind a call not to start seabed mining until the end of that decade, so we can use this initiative to find out if deep seabed mining is really the way forward.

Matthew: We often hear from countries: “Well, seabed mining is inevitable so we need to develop regulations that will lessen the damage.” But it’s not inevitable, at least not in the international portion of the world’s oceans. Seabed mining will occur based on the consent of the international community as a whole. And in our view, if the biodiversity concerns expressed by scientists: that biodiversity loss would be inevitable if deep seabed mining occurs, then how can the international community of nations justify opening up this whole new frontier to environmental degradation and possible species extinctions, knowing what we know now about what we’ve done to much of the rest of the planet?

David: I feel that we’re on the cusp of something. We were working on seabed mining as an issue 20 years ago, pointing out the threats that it posed. But it was, at that point, still considered to be something a little bit fringe, and probably never likely to happen in practice. And now I think we’re in a different context. I think it’s now being seen by some as an inevitability. And you know, if things like that become an inevitability, that’s the moment where you have to stop and say: “Woah, if that’s an inevitability, what does that mean about the way in which we’ve organised society?”

Marcy: Deep seabed mining is a fascinating idea. It may hold the key to a more sustainable future, but we need to be careful and learn from past experience. We need to work together towards a circular economy, so our dependency on destructive mining can come to an end. But right now, we as citizens need to pay attention. It’s up to all of us to follow closely what’s happening at the Seabed Authority, because like Matthew said, seabed mining won’t happen until we all agree it should. And if that day comes, we owe it to ourselves to know what’s at stake.

Mining the Deep is hosted by me, Marcy Trent Long, and produced by Samuel Colombie in collaboration with China Dialogue. The series is mixed by Chris Wood.

Thanks to all our guests for helping us unravel this complicated issue, to Miguel Urmeneta for his voice-over, and Alexander Mauboussin for his intro music, made from repurposed and recovered waste items. Additional thanks to the podcast “After the Fact” by Pew Charitable Trusts, for providing audio from a speech by Michael Lodge. Thank you to the entire Sustainable Asia team, Bonnie and Heidi Au, Josie Chan, Crystal Wu and Jill Baxter.

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