Seabed mining regulator meets as critical minerals drive heats up

Credit: UN Environment Programme

A marine scientist has emerged as a new candidate to lead the International Seabed Authority. If elected, she could represent a shift in how the UN-affiliated organization that regulates deep sea mining operates. It’s a high-stakes year for the nascent industry, as pressure mounts on the ISA to finalize mining regulations and as more countries focus on shoring up their supply of critical minerals used to make electric vehicle batteries and other technologies.

During a two-week meeting of the ISA’s policymaking Council that kicked off on Monday, Brazil’s delegate — speaking on behalf of 29 Latin American and Caribbean member nations — announced the candidacy of Brazilian oceanographer Leticia Carvalho for the position of secretary-general of the organization’s administrative arm, known as the Secretariat. The ISA’s 168 member nations and the European Union will decide on the next secretary-general at what is expected to be a pivotal meeting in July.

“I do believe that this is the most important year for the Authority,” said Olav Myklebust of Norway upon his election Thursday as the president of the ISA Council for 2024.

If elected, Carvalho would likely represent a marked change from the administration of current Secretary-General Michael Lodge, whose second four-year term ends in December. A UK lawyer, Lodge has disparaged environmental opposition to mining deep ocean ecosystems for valuable minerals and drawn criticism for his closeness to mining contractors the ISA regulates.

The choice of the next secretary-general could have significant economic and environmental consequences for deep sea mining, if regulations are ultimately approved. The ISA’s charter gives the person in that role authority over the Secretariat’s operations and its dealings with mining companies. Since member states usually only meet twice a year, the secretary-general would handle day-to-day decisions about how to respond to a mining accident, for example. The secretary-general also personally negotiates the terms of confidential contracts with mining companies.

Pressure is mounting on the ISA to finish its decade-long effort to enact regulations amid growing opposition to mining fragile and biodiverse deep sea habitats for cobalt, nickel and other metals. Lodge, who has worked at the ISA since its establishment in 1994, has not yet indicated whether he’ll seek re-election.

Carvalho runs the marine and freshwater branch of the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi and previously served as a Brazilian federal environmental official.

Greenpeace and other accredited ISA observers haven’t taken a position on Carvalho’s candidacy. “As the regulator of deep sea mining, the head of the ISA — as well as all its members — need to focus on what is threatening the oceans and take action to stop these threats,” Louisa Casson, a Greenpeace deep sea mining campaigner, said from ISA headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica.

The 36-member-state Council is meeting this month amid a flurry of recent developments around seabed mining. On the first day of the gathering, Denmark became the 25th ISA member nation to call for a pause or moratorium on mining due to a lack of scientific knowledge about seafloor ecosystems.

While the US only attends ISA meetings as an observer — it declined to ratify the 1982 UN treaty that gives the ISA jurisdiction over the seabed in international waters — US interest in deep sea mining is growing. The Metals Company (TMC), an ISA mining contractor, has been lobbying US politicians, some of whom are in turn framing deep sea mining as necessary to reduce reliance on China for critical minerals. China controls five ISA exploration contracts that allow it to prospect for minerals, the most of any nation.

There are already signs that the US may be keen to follow in the footsteps of countries like Norway, which in January approved seabed mining exploration in its territorial waters to lessen dependence on China, contravening the advice of government scientists. In the US, Congress included a provision in its most recent defense budget that requires the Pentagon to issue a report on the nation’s capacity to process seabed minerals.

In November, seven Republican congressmen from Texas wrote a letter to Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Taylor-Kale expressing support for TMC’s proposal to build a seabed minerals facility in the state. A month later, 31 Republican representatives sent a letter urging Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “to develop a plan to address the national security ramifications of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) interest and investment in seabed mining.”

On March 11, more than 300 former political and military leaders, including Hillary Clinton and three former chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, signed a letter to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations urging ratification of the UN treaty that established the ISA so that “American businesses can harvest the strategic critical minerals of the deep ocean floor.” A day after that, two Republican congresspeople introduced the Responsible Use of Seafloor Resources Act of 2024, which would require the federal government to support domestic seabed minerals processing.

At the ISA’s meeting this month, tensions may flare with another accredited observer: Greenpeace, whose activists last year boarded and occupied a ship conducting scientific research for a TMC subsidiary in the Pacific Ocean. After that subsidiary sued Greenpeace, a Dutch judge ultimately ordered the activists to leave the vessel, but preserved their right to protest alongside it.

The incident underscores the role of the secretary-general in handling disputes. Lodge responded to the protest by ordering Greenpeace to stay 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the TMC vessel, but the Dutch judge ruled that the ISA lacked jurisdiction over Greenpeace. Lodge nonetheless doubled down on his claim of authority over protesters in the Pacific in a report to the Council ahead of this month’s meeting.

In a video message shown Tuesday at an ISA side event organized by Greenpeace, UN Rapporteur for Environmental Defenders Michel Forst said international law protects the right to protest seabed mining. “The ISA Secretary General seeking to prevent Greenpeace activists from protesting at sea is yet again another example of the ongoing crackdown on environmental defenders,” he said. “But what is even more shocking is that this happens in an international organization.”

The March Council meeting is the last ISA gathering before the organization’s annual meeting in July, at which the next secretary-general will be elected. At that gathering, all eyes will be on TMC, which has aggressively pushed for the completion of regulations and mounted a global campaign to gain support for deep sea mining.

If regulations are greenlit, TMC would likely be the first company to mine the seabed. One of the company’s ISA contracts is sponsored by the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, which in 2021 triggered a provision requiring the ISA to enact mining regulations by 2023. The ISA missed that deadline, and so must start accepting applications.

TMC has said it reserves the right to apply for a mining license after the July meeting, even in the absence of regulations. But any application will require analyzing enormous volumes of scientific data on potential environmental impacts. TMC only recently completed its latest scientific expedition to the area targeted for mining; processing all that data will take time.

“The real goal is to ensure that the mining code and final rules, regulations and procedures are in place before mining would begin,” Craig Shesky, TMC’s chief financial officer, said Tuesday during a company presentation.

(By Todd Woody)


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