DSCC News

Deep-Sea Mining Looms on Horizon as UN Body Issues Contracts

25 July 2015

Source: The New York Times

The deep oceans span more than half the globe and their frigid depths have long been known to contain vast, untapped deposits of prized minerals. These treasures of the abyss, however, have always been out of reach to miners.

But now, the era of deep seabed mining appears to be dawning fueled by technological advances in robotics and dwindling land-based deposits. Rising demand for copper, cobalt, gold and the rare-earth elements vital in manufacturing smartphones and other high-tech products is causing a prospecting rush to the dark seafloor thousands of meters (yards) beneath the waves.

With authorities at the Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority issuing exploration contracts, alarmed conservationists are warning that the deep ocean's fragile biodiversity must be protected and not nearly enough is known about the risks of extracting minerals from seabeds.

"The pace of activity has increased dramatically over the last five years," said Michael Lodge, deputy secretary-general of the obscure U.N. body in Kingston that acts as a global steward of the deep seafloor and is tasked with regulating this new mining frontier. "We're seeing the private sector invest in a big way."

The U.N. agency, known by its initials ISA, presides over seabed outside the exclusive territorial waters of individual countries. So far, it has issued 27 exploration contracts, the large majority of them since 2011. The 15-year contracts allow for mineral prospecting on over 1 million square kilometers (over 390,000 sq. miles) of seabed in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Governments and private companies have been moving so rapidly to stake claims and assess deposits that insiders forecast that commercial deep-sea mining could start within the next five years using robotic collectors equipped with cameras and sonar sensors along with pipe systems that can siphon crushed minerals to ships.

During a gathering this month in Jamaica of representatives from nearly 170 member states, ISA has started drafting a framework to regulate commercial exploitation of seafloor metals and minerals. The session ended Friday.

A group of international scientists, in a July 9 article in the journal Science, urged ISA to temporarily halt authorization of new mining contracts until networks of "marine protected areas" are established around areas targeted for mining.

"We owe it to future generations to ensure that we think before we act and gain a thorough understanding of the potential impacts of mining in the deep sea before any mining is permitted," said Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, which sent observers to ISA's 21st session in Kingston.

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