Debates between deep-sea mining (for minerals to assist the energy transition) and guarding the Ocean's little understood ecosystems will take center stage as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) meets in Jamaica.
Regular meetings of bodies under the ISA have been attracting increasing attention over the last few years as the interest of the international community on Ocean-related issues grows. All mineral-related activities in the international seabed area are “organized, regulated, and controlled” by ISA for “the benefit of mankind as a whole.”
The debate over commercial exploitation of mineral resources from the deep ocean floor—the last largely unexplored frontier—is not new. Those in favor of mining point towards a sustainable supply of nickel, manganese, cobalt, or copper necessary for a worldwide energy transition. Those against mining focus on the need to protect the Ocean, already facing numerous challenges, including pollution and climate change, and to study these little-known deep-sea ecosystems, prior to authorizing potential extractive activities.
The ISA has been trying to balance these concerns through the development of the “Mining Code,” which is the set of rules, regulations, and procedures to regulate prospecting, exploration, and exploitation of minerals in the international seabed area (Area). The Area is defined as “the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”
So far, the Authority has issued regulations on Prospecting and Exploration (for polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides, and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts) and issued relevant exploration contracts. It is currently focusing on the development of regulations for the exploitation of mineral resources in the Area. The deliberations have been ongoing for a number of years, with the first working draft submitted in 2016.
Discussions heated up recently due to a provision in the 1994 Agreement relating to the implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Part XI (the Area). The provision notes that if the ISA’s Council has not completed the elaboration of the regulations relating to exploitation within two years following the request of a state who intends to apply for approval of a plan of work for exploitation, then the Council “shall nonetheless consider and provisionally approve such plan of work” based on the provisions of the Convention and any rules, that the Council may have adopted provisionally. On 25 June 2021, Nauru submitted such a request, in connection with its contractor Nauru Ocean Resources Inc.
The 28th session of the ISA will be held in 2023 in three parts. The first one comprises a meeting of the Legal and Technical Commission (LTC) (7-15 March) and the Council (16-31 March).
This Council meeting will, among other things:
- listen to the report of the Chair of the LTC on its 28th session;
- consider, with a view to adoption, the draft regulations on exploitation;
- address the status of contracts for exploration, also considering applications for a plan of work for exploration;
- listen to reports of the Secretary-General on the status of national legislation relating to deep-seabed mining and on the implementation of the Council Decision relating to the report of the Chair of the LTC;
- consider matters relating to the Enterprise;
- address the operationalization of the Economic Planning Commission; and
- discuss cooperation with other relevant organizations.
The second part of the 28th session includes meetings of the LTC (28 June – 7 July 2023), the Finance Committee (5-7 July 2023), the Council (10-21 July 2023) and the Assembly (24-28 July 2023). The third and final part includes a Council meeting, scheduled for 30 October – 8 November 2023. All meetings will be held in ISA headquarters, in Kingston, Jamaica.
The Earth Negotiations Bulletin will be providing daily web coverage and a summary and analysis from the Council meeting, beginning on 16 March 2023.