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A Tiny Pacific Island Is About To Change The Future Of The World’s Seabed: The Legal Battle Over Deep Sea Mining

On June 25, a representative of the Republic of Nauru stood in Kingston, Jamaica, to notify live you to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) that they had the firm intention of beginning to extract minerals from the seabed of the Pacific Ocean as soon as possible. After seven years of negotiations at the ISA, regulation of deepwater mining remained as stranded as day one because companies, countries, activists and academics were unable to reach an agreement. However, the letter from Nauru changed everything.

The letter activated a “time bomb”: if in two years the ISA could not “complete the rules, regulations and procedures necessary to facilitate the approval of the work plans for exploitation”, Nauru would act on its own and the Canadian mining company DeepGreen would start mining at Clarion-Clipperton, an area of ​​the North Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico known to be rich in all kinds of minerals.

It looks like a dark administrative dispute between a small oceanic republic and a little-known international organization, and indeed, that is it. However, in a world gripped by the scarcity of minerals such as copper, cobalt, nickel or magnesium, we are before the starting gun of a savage struggle to define the future of the oceans, deep-sea mining and international governance.

Countdown to draw the future of the ocean

No one will be surprised by the fact that deep sea mining is a very contentious topic. On the one hand, mining companies assure that the minerals that we can extract from the seabed are essential to ensure the success of the energy transition. After all, the “decarbonisation” of the world entails huge material needs with which to make batteries and other devices (such as wind turbines or solar panels).

Instead, environmental activists (but also other industries such as fishing) denounce the risks of disturbance of fishing grounds, water pollution or destruction of ecosystems that involve this type of practice. Practices that, on the other hand, are very difficult to control. The risks, they assured from this side in a fantastic report by Jonathan Watts for The Guardian, are too great to justify new licenses.

Potential Impacts From Deep Sea MiningPotential Impacts From Deep Sea Mining


And I say “new” because deep sea mining is not something we just discovered. The certainty that huge amounts of gold, platinum, copper, nickel, cobalt or numerous rare earths hide in the seabed has been with us for a long time. In fact, in the 70s, prospects were already made to extract these minerals. However, the technology was not mature. Now the situation has changed (Or, at least, that’s what mining companies believe in).

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In this way, the countdown has begun. In 21 months we will know what will happen to deepwater mining. Something that, whether we like it or not, is going to have a huge impact on the development of technology in the coming years.

Image | Jim Beaudoin