Questions raised about the Authority charged with protecting the deep

Date: April 19, 2022

Source: LA Times

Authors: Todd Woody & Evan Halper

An LA Times investigation finds deep-seated conflicts of interest and pro-mining biases at the heart of the International Seabed Authority.

Michael Lodge’s appearance in a promotional video for the deep-sea mining company DeepGreen struck now-former members of Lodge’s own staff — and scientists who warn of potentially catastrophic environmental fallout from the mining venture — as problematic. It raised concerns, they said, of a conflict of interest between industry, the authority and its secretariat, the 47-person administrative arm Lodge leads, at a crucial moment for the world’s oceans.

As Lodge’s organization works to draft regulations that will allow robots to mine the seabed on an industrial scale, internal documents reviewed by The Times point to a closeness with mining companies that stands out as unorthodox in environmental regulation.

“The ISA is not fit to regulate any activity in international waters,” said Sandor Mulsow, a marine geologist who served as the authority’s top environmental official for more than five years until 2019. “It is like to ask the wolf to take care of the sheep.”

The authority, which was established by a United Nations treaty but operates autonomously, is pushing to set up rules that could allow seabed mining in as soon as two years, despite calls from scientists and even some car companies for more research into the little-known ecosystems and the scale of damage that excavating the ocean floor could cause. 

Australia, Mexico, Chile, Britain and at least five other member states have expressed growing concern that the authority isn’t requiring mining contractors to do enough environmental assessment. The organization is accused by some nongovernmental organizations and some of its own former employees of being too accommodating to the companies it regulates.

Rules the ISA is fast-tracking would allow large-scale excavation. The push comes at the behest of companies like DeepGreen — now called the Metals Company after a 2021 merger — which have been lobbying the authority to finalize regulations so the mining of minerals potentially worth trillions of dollars could begin.

At the same time the authority is writing the rules for this deep-sea gold rush, it is also looking to join it. The authority’s charter calls for it to create a seabed mining company called the Enterprise. The stated goal is to help cash-strapped developing nations share in the profits and technology from mining operations with developing nations. But there is deep unease among some member countries and observers who see an intrinsic conflict of interest.

“It’s extremely concerning” that the ISA “would be in charge of running a business that it is also in charge of regulating,” said Arlo Hemphill, a senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace.

Scientists have called for a pause in the move to mine the seabed. A petition signed by 622 scientists and marine policy experts from more than 44 nations warns there are too many unknowns. BMW, Volvo, Volkswagen and Google are all pledging — for now, at least — not to use metals mined from the deep ocean floor. In February, California legislators introduced a bill to ban seabed mining in state waters.

Mining threatens habitats unlikely to recover on human time scales, oceanographers say. Plumes of sediment kicked up from mining could suffocate organisms miles away, they say. Toxic metals and mining waste could be released into the water column that connects the deep ocean to the surface and is a two-way highway for marine life on which humans depend.

Some scientists say the authority does not push mining companies to collect sufficient environmental data to effectively weigh the risks of industrial-scale seabed mining.

“The current secretariat is very much in favor of deep seabed mining, and it’s no secret that it perceived that environmental conservation would be more hindering than helping mining,” said Stefan Bräger, a marine biologist who served as the authority’s scientific affairs officer for five years until late 2018.

“We need to have confidence that the authority is acting in the interests of everyone and not just a handful of mining companies or individuals working for the secretariat,” said Matthew Gianni, a founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an alliance of over 90 environmental groups.

Read the full article here.

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