17 December 2013
Source: The Economist
Author: Michael Lodge
The sea floor is as crucial to human flourishing as the earth’s surface, and as in need of careful stewardship. Just like the terrestrial environment, it is made up of mountain ranges, plateaus, volcanic peaks, canyons and vast plains. It contains most of the same minerals we find on land, often in enriched forms, as well as mineral formations that are unique to the deep ocean such as ferromanganese crusts and manganese nodules.
The possibility of mining the deep seabed has been known for several decades. As long ago as the 1960s, the idea that manganese nodules on the deep seabed offered the prospect of massive profits for industrialized nations with the technology to access them, coupled with the fear that there would be a race to colonize the seabed, led the United Nations General Assembly to declare the mineral resources of the seabed as the common heritage of mankind, to be used “for the benefit of mankind as a whole”.
After the initial euphoria of the 1970s, a collapse in world metal prices, combined with relatively easy access to minerals in the developing world, dampened interest in seabed mining.
Nevertheless, the United Nations forged ahead to develop the international machinery to administer the mineral resources of the deep seabed, in the form of an international organization known as the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The ISA, established under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and with a membership of 166 states, is empowered to issue contracts for seabed mining, to receive royalties from mining and to distribute those royalties for the benefit of developing countries that lack the technology and capital to carry out mining for themselves.
Now, after decades in which it lay dormant, there is an explosion of interest in the commercial exploitation of seabed minerals, from the private sector and governments alike. [see Will Deep-sea Mining Yield an Underwater Gold Rush?]