UNITED NATIONS: The prospect of large-scale mining to extract valuable minerals from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, once a distant vision, has grown more real, raising alarms among the oceans’ most fervent defenders.

“I think this is a real and imminent risk,” Emma Wilson of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an umbrella organization of environmental groups and scientific bodies, told.

“There are plenty of stakeholders that are flagging the significant environmental risks.” And the long-awaited treaty to protect the high seas, even if it is adopted in negotiations resuming on Monday, is unlikely to alleviate risks anytime soon: it will not take effect immediately and will have to come to terms with the International Seabed Authority (ISA). That agency, established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, has 167 member states.

It has authority over the ocean floors outside of member states’ Exclusive Economic Zones (which extend up to 200 nautical miles, or 370 kilometres, from coastlines).

But conservation groups say the ISA has two glaringly contradictory missions: protecting the sea floors under the high seas while organising the activities of industries eager to mine untapped resources on the ocean floor. For now, some 30 research centres and enterprises have been approved to explore — but not exploit — limited areas. Mining activities are not supposed to begin before negotiators adopt a mining code, already under discussion for nearly a decade.

Making waves

But the small Pacific island nation of Nauru, impatient with the plodding pace of progress, made waves in June 2021 by invoking a clause allowing it to demand relevant rules be adopted within two years. Once that deadline is reached, the government could request a mining contract for Nori (Nauru Ocean Resources), a subsidiary of Canada’s The Metals Company.

Nauru has offered what it called a “good faith” promise to hold off until after an ISA assembly in July, in hopes it will adopt a mining code.

“The only thing we need is rules and regulations in place so that people are all responsible actors,” Nauru’s ambassador to the ISA Margo Deiye told. But it is “very unlikely” that a code will be agreed by July, said Pradeep Singh, a sea law expert at the Research Institute for Sustainability, in Potsdam, Germany.

“There’s just too many items on the list that still need to be resolved,” he told. Those items, he said, include the highly contentious issue of how profits from undersea mining would be shared, and how environmental impacts should be measured.

NGOs thus fear that Nori could obtain a mining contract without the protections provided by a mining code.

Conservation groups complain that ISA procedures are “obscure” and its leadership is “pro-extraction.” The agency’s secretary-general, Michael Lodge, insists that those accusations have “absolutely no substance whatsoever.”

Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2023

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