The Mining Code & The ISA: How a Single Decision Could Shape the Fate of Our Planet’s Last Great Wilderness

The Mining Code & The ISA: How a Single Decision Could Shape the Fate of Our Planet's Last Great Wilderness


Part 2 of a series of guest blog posts written by students in the Masters of the Environment Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, as part of a capstone project in collaboration with the Inland Ocean Coalition. The project is tracking the potential decision to commence mining the deep sea, the complexities surrounding this monumental decision, and conveying the importance of this issue to the public. Stay tuned for the next post in this series!


This summer, decisions are being made by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) that could affect the fate of the deep-sea and the extent to which its resources can be exploited. These decisions could green light a new industry that would mine the deep-sea for rare earth metals needed for the renewable energy sector. Giving this industry the go-ahead would also mean the destruction of our planet’s last great wilderness. In the words of David Attenborough, “Mining means destruction and in this case it means the destruction of an ecosystem about which we know pathetically little."

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is an international organization established in 1994 to create rules and regulations for seabed mineral exploration and commercial use in international waters, an area that includes the majority of the world's ocean. The ISA has already issued regulations for prospecting and exploring three relevant types of minerals: polymetallic nodules (also known as manganese nodules), polymetallic sulphides, and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts. A comprehensive set of rules and regulations for industrial deep-sea mineral extraction in international waters is currently under development and set to be released by the ISA this July. This set of rules and regulations is known as the Mining Code and will determine if deep-sea mining will be allowed and how much environmental impact it will have. However, many countries, scientists, and companies have called for a moratorium on creating the Mining Code until scientists can conduct more studies on deep-sea ecosystems.

Developing the Mining Code presents many problems and is one of the most controversial topics in international diplomacy today. The process has lacked transparency and the public cannot access vital information, meaning a small group of individuals with very little oversight is creating the rules and procedures for an industry with the potential to impact all humankind and all life in the ocean. One clear example is that companies or contractors are not required to disclose their names in commercial mining applications. Without knowing who is mining, a few countries and companies could readily take advantage of these resources.

Once the ISA releases its rules regarding resource extraction, companies and countries can begin submitting applications for resource extraction in international waters, paving the way for a deep-sea mining industry. The ISA receives funding each time a country applies for an exploratory permit, and this will continue if they give the green light for commercial mining. For example, the ISA receives $500,000 US dollars for every exploration contract it approves, and the ISA has approved all 30 exploration contract applications it has received. This conflict of interest is essential when contrasting the two opinionated sides of deep-sea mining and looking at critical decisions that the ISA will soon make. 

It is important to examine the ISA's history to understand the implications of the issues plaguing the ISA and its impending decision. The ISA and laws for mining in international waters originated in a 1982 United Nations convention known as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS is a set of rules that governs how resources found in international waters should be utilized and shared. Signing members agreed that any resources found in international waters, including minerals found on the deep-seabed, are the common heritage of all humankind. One hundred sixty-eight states have ratified UNCLOS, including the states of the European Union, making UNCLOS one of the world’s most significant international treaties. 

The United States, however, did not ratify UNCLOS despite having a significant role in its development. The United States claimed that signing would be against its national security and economic interests, mainly because of many of the provisions related to deep-sea mining. The US has had many chances to ratify UNCLOS over the last 40 years, but the treaty has never made it out of the legislative branch. 

With the ratification of UNCLOS, members agreed that any resources found in international waters are the common heritage of all humankind and that a governing body was needed to enforce such a rule. UNCLOS established the ISA to protect international waters from harmful activities and to equitably share the economic benefits of international activities amongst the 168 signatories. All members of UNCLOS that ratified the international treaty became members of the ISA. Not having ratified UNCLOS, the United States can attend and speak at ISA meetings but cannot vote. 


Map of where current exploration contracts are held, and for which resource type. Source: ISA Website


Countries and companies worldwide want to study the deep-sea, and part of the ISA's job is to ensure that any research conducted there does minimal harm to the environment and that the world's richest countries do not accrue most of the economic benefits. To do this, the ISA issues exploration contracts to any interested parties, which grant the contractor the right to conduct research in a designated area in international waters for 15 years. Countries entering into an exploration contract with the ISA must present a contingency plan should any of their research go wrong, and the countries must submit an annual report showing their research progress. 


The International Seabed Authority’s Structure. Source: Science Direct


From 1994 to 2009, the ISA granted most of its exploration contracts to countries since any member of UNCLOS is eligible to apply for an exploration contract. However, in 2010 international corporations also began pursuing exploration contracts under the sponsorship of a member country. Today there are 31 exploration contracts held by countries and corporations from around the world, with the majority of exploration occurring in the Pacific Ocean. 


Graphic Depicting Timeline of ISA Actions. Source: Science Direct


One company particularly interested in quickly gaining an extraction permit is The Metals Company (TMC), which has put much time and resources into obtaining exploration permits through the ISA. As early as late 2024, they plan to begin mining polymetallic nodules to process and sell the metals within the nodules to the ever-growing renewable energy sector. According to company projections, the excavation effort would last about two decades and generate as much as $31 billion in profits. The Pacific Island nations of Nauru, the Kingdom of Tonga, and the Republic of Kiribati, all of whom want to exploit the resources found in polymetallic nodules, sponsor The Metals Company. The economic benefits of deep-sea mining are significant and urgent to TMC as they have lost more than 90% of their stock value since going public in 2021. In December 2022, they received a delisting notice from Nasdaq after their stocks traded below $1 for more than 30 days.

A map of the small Pacific Island nation of Nauru, roughly 8 square miles in size. Source: GIS Maps


On July 9, 2021, Nauru officially triggered an expedited development of the ISA’s Mining Code through an obscure provision dubbed the “two-year rule,” which gives any country with an exploration contract the right to compel the ISA to expedite its rulemaking process for extracting deep-sea resources. The two year rule was up July 9th of this year, and the ISA has since started several weeks of meetings looking to have the rules done by the end of July. Once the mining code is complete, The Metals Company has stated that it will apply for an extraction contract as soon as possible. Although July 9 is the date specified under the two-year rule, experts are uncertain whether the rule means a hard deadline, and many expect the mining code negotiations to last through July. Should the ISA fail to complete a set of rules, they would still have to provisionally approve the contract due to a requirement under the 2-year rule, which means that TMC’s plans for beginning deep-sea mining in late 2024 are wholly realistic. 

The Metals Company claims that by conducting a deep-sea mining operation in its 75,000 square kilometer area in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, it can supply enough rare Earth metals for 1 billion electric vehicles batteries. For reference, the Clarion Clipperton Zone is a 4.5 million square kilometer area of seafloor between Hawaii and Mexico that has massive amounts of rare earth metals. Despite the global backlash, The Metals Company plans to move forward with its mission of extracting metal deposits in the deep-sea and making the Clarion Clipperton Zone the first deep-sea mining site in history.

A polymetallic nodule field located in the Clarion Clipperton Zone
Source: DSM Observer

The expedition of the ISA's mining code has resulted in global backlash from countries, corporations, nonprofits, and world leaders. There are many unknowns of deep-sea mining, especially regarding the environmental impacts, and many are calling for a precautionary pause or a moratorium until we better understand the impacts on deep-sea ecosystems, wildlife, and the ocean as a whole. There is also concern that the ISA could give a green light to an industry that it cannot effectively monitor and control. An understaffed intergovernmental agency with a small budget, the ISA is tasked with monitoring the environmental impacts of an area roughly the size of the EU (the Clarion Clipperton Zone). Similar to how the ISA gets money for every exploration contract it receives, the ISA will receive a share of the profits from any mineral extraction, so there is concern about the ISA's conflict of interest in letting mineral extraction commence. In essence, the ISA is developing the mining code too fast, opening the door to an industry that it cannot control that could do irreversible damage to the world's ocean.

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