NGOs slam missed chance to prevent seabed mining
UNITED NATIONS — Ocean advocates have warned that the door may fly open for undersea mining in the near future in the absence of solid environmental rules that more and more nations demand.
As two weeks of negotiations concluded on Friday over possible environmental rules restricting large-scale mining of the seabed, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) voiced fear that the industry may soon be given the green light.
Several nations called for a moratorium on such mining at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) council meeting.
“The first thing to highlight is that the political atmosphere has shifted quite radically since that time last year,” Emma Wilson of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“There wasn’t a single state at that point that had stood up and said no to mining,” she said.
But as the two-week meeting wrapped up, she remained “very worried” that the door could be opened to mining applications later this year.
The Jamaica-based ISA, established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, has authority over the ocean floors outside of its 167 member states’ exclusive economic zones (EEZ), which extend up to 370 kilometers from their coastlines.
Harm to ecosystems
It has so far awarded seabed exploration contracts only to research centers and companies in well-defined areas of potential mineral wealth.
Industrial exploitation of nickel, cobalt, or copper is not expected to begin until the adoption of a mining code that has been under discussion for nearly 10 years—including at the latest talks in Kingston.
For years, NGOs and scientists have warned of the damage seabed mining could inflict on deep-sea ecosystems.
Other countries are increasingly echoing concerns on deep-sea ecosystems: Canada, Australia, and Belgium among others have insisted that international seabed mining cannot begin without strict rules.
“The conditions do not exist for the exploitation of the seabed to begin,” insisted Marcelino Miranda, representative of Mexico, on Friday.
Other nations—among them France, Germany, Chile, and Vanuatu —are pushing more explicitly for a “moratorium” or “pause” on exploitation.
“Deep-sea mining would go beyond harming the seabed and have a wider impact on fish populations, marine mammals, and the essential function of the deep-sea ecosystems in regulating the climate,” Vanuatu’s representative, Sylvain Kalsakau, said during the negotiations.
“We encourage our fellow Pacific states who have expressed interest in deep-sea mining to step back from the brink,” Kalsakau said.
Nauru, impatient with the pace of progress, invoked in June 2021 a clause allowing it to demand that a mining code be adopted within two years.
Once that deadline is reached, on July 9, Nauru’s government could request a mining contract for Nori (Nauru Ocean Resources Inc.), a subsidiary of Canada’s The Metals Company.
‘A lot of anxiety here’
But without a code in place, the 36-member council is divided over the process for reviewing an application for a mining contract — and it looked on course to part without agreement, with a draft seen by AFP calling for further talks on the matter.
The continuing uncertainty is “creating a lot of anxiety here,” said Pradeep Singh, a law of the sea expert and fellow at the Research Institute for Sustainability in Potsdam.
Nauru Ambassador Margo Deiye repeated on Friday that her country would wait for the conclusion of a July session before filing an application, hoping that the mining code could be adopted.
However, many observers and negotiators say this is unlikely.
“It is now clear that there is still a long way to go and that the two-week session in July will be largely insufficient to finalize the code,” Belgian Ambassador Hugo Verbist said on Friday.
And the 36 members of the ISA’s executive body failed to agree at this session on the process for reviewing an application for an exploitation contract that would be filed in the absence of a mining code.
“Walking like sleepwalkers towards an uncertain legal situation beyond July 9 has become a reality,” Verbist said, lamenting this “legal loophole” created by the lack of a decision.
“Governments are recklessly leaving the backdoor open for deep-sea mining to sneak through and start operating later this year,” said Greenpeace’s Louisa Casson in a statement.
If The Metals Company starts gearing up for a launch of production in late 2024, NGOs fear that other industry groups will spy an opening — and file their own applications when the two-year clause ends.
A few weeks after the historic adoption of a treaty to protect the high seas, “this deeply irresponsible outcome is a wasted opportunity to send a clear signal (…) that the era of ocean destruction is over,” Casson added.
In the Philippines, seabed mining within the country’s territorial waters has caused alarm in local communities.
In December 2020, the Philippine government gave permission for the first large-scale offshore mining in the country.
JDVC Resources Corp. will mine for magnetite — a kind of iron oxide used to make steel — within a 1,903-hectare area in the seabed 14 kilometers off the municipality of Gonzaga in Cagayan province. The concession area has a potential magnetite ore reserve of around 632 million tons.
Environmental groups have warned that magnetite was toxic and that offshore mining may bring irreversible damage to the ecosystem. The supposed danger was dismissed by the company.
In January this year, the Inquirer reported that Filipino fishermen were being adversely affected by quarrying and reclamation works in Manila Bay as their fish catch dwindled.
According to the Environmental Management Bureau, dredging operations in various areas of the bay cover about 13,530 hectares by the San Nicolas Shoal Seabed Quarry Project of VIL Mines Inc. (8,530 ha), and by Seabed Quarry Project of the Philippine Reclamation Authority (5,000 ha).
According to marine scientist Fernando Siringan of the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute, quarrying disturbs the seafloor and leaves it too muddy for fish to stay.
Dredging the sand could also release dormant cysts of red tide species that, in the right conditions, could reproduce and repopulate the water surface, causing algal blooms that are toxic to marine life.
Local anti-mining network Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM) called on the government to adopt a precautionary principle on seabed quarrying and offshore mining.
“There should be a halt in seabed quarrying projects considering government has still to undertake economic valuation or natural capital accounting of our marine ecosystems. Without knowing the value of our marine life, there is no way to determine the tradeo-ffs that come with destructive seabed quarrying and offshore mining,” Jaybee Garganera, ATM national coordinator, said in a statement last month.
According to the group many coastal communities in the country, which are dependent on the sea for their livelihood, would be adversely affected should seabed quarrying continue.
In June last year, the Inquirer reported that a number of foreign companies have signified interest in offshore mining.
The Offshore Mining Chamber of the Philippines (OMCP) said at least 12 foreign companies had gotten in touch with their member companies on the possibility of seabed mining opportunities in the country.
Among these companies were Primetals Technologies of Austria; Duro Felguera of Spain; and Japanese companies Nakanishi Shipbuilding, Kurimoto Iron Works, Kansai Design Co., and JTrade Co.
The OMCP, founded in 2019, is comprised of seven offshore mining companies that include Agbiag Mining and Development Corp., Cagayan Blue Ocean Offshore Aquamarine Services Corp., JDVC Resources Corp., Northern Orient Resources Development Corp., Advanced Technology Resources Mining and Business Process Technology Provider Corp., Mineralogic Resources Corp. and Royal Line Mining Corp.
To date, only JDVC has the go-ahead from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to conduct large-scale offshore mining in the country.
In May last year, the DENR issued Administrative Order No. 171-2022 imposing a moratorium on the acceptance of new applications for special exploration permits or government seabed quarry permits, following a directive from former President Rodrigo Duterte.
Prior to the issuance of the AO, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau said that it accepted 10 government seabed quarry permit applications.
—REPORTS FROM AFP, DEXTER CABALZA AND INQUIRER RESEARCH
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