The Guardian • Issue #1980

Nauru invokes the Law of the Sea to begin deep seabed mining by 2022

At the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly last week, a controversial move by the states of Micronesia was on the agenda. The Federated States of Micronesia, in particular Nauru, declared their intention in June this year to ‘jump start’ the process of seabed mining for cobalt, a move which could have drastic economic and ecological consequences.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) governs the rights of various states to different areas of the sea. Notably, it provides that

“[T]he sovereignty of a coastal State extends, beyond its land territory and internal waters and, in the case of an archipelagic State, its archipelagic waters, to an adjacent belt of sea, described as the territorial sea.”

A state’s “territorial sea” extends up to twelve nautical miles beyond its borders. This area is the sovereign territory of the relevant state, but it remains subject to the Law of the Sea.

UNCLOS also established an international body based in Jamaica called the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to “organise, regulate and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”

Commercial mining operations in the sea are currently prohibited under international law, pending the development of regulations by the ISA. In June 2020, a petition by leading marine scientists and policy experts urged the ISA to hold off on developing regulations around commercial seabed mining until science has a better understanding of the risks involved.

Later that month, the nation of Nauru submitted an application to the ISA indicating that it wanted to start mining the seabed for cobalt, through the mineral company DeepGreen. This triggered the “two year rule” under UNCLOS which allows states to notify the ISA of their intention to begin deep mining in two years’ time, even if regulations around deep sea mining have not been finalised.

This is a many-sided issue with no obvious solutions forthcoming – it is a delicate balancing act between obtaining the resources for sustainable energy in an ethical way and potentially destroying the world’s ecosystem by rushing the technology. 

Cobalt is essential for sustainable energy production and Micronesia is home to a lot of it; an estimated 1 billion tonnes. For context, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is currently the largest producer of cobalt, at seventy per cent of the global market share. In 2019, the DRC mined just 100,000 tonnes of cobalt. However, the cobalt trade in the Congo is plagued by abuses including child labour and government corruption, in a country with one of the lowest HDI rankings in the world.

The cobalt rich minerals on the ocean floor in the area around Micronesia span an area roughly the size of the Amazon rainforest and offer a more ethical way to produce cobalt. But the current technology for seabed mining could stir up massive clouds of matter from the seabed floor and this could have massive flow on effects which accelerate the effects of climate change. It could kill local sea life but also interrupt the migration routes of large migratory animals like dolphins and whales. Due to the nature of sea currents, changes in one area could easily spread across the globe,

While the environmental impacts of deep seabed mining are potentially devastating and an area of legitimate concern, some have argued that the West’s fervent opposition, disguised as environmentalism, is actually economically motivated. China and the West have invested heavily in cobalt mining in the Congo over the last decade. The seabed area surrounding Micronesia contains enough cobalt to sink this economy, shifting the economic balance of power away from the global north.

One thing is clear, the interests of global capital are deeply entrenched in the proposed deep sea mining operations. The seabed is part of the common heritage of humankind; we cannot let it be destroyed for the sake of mineral companies exploiting the economic vulnerability of the global south. If that means waiting until the science – and the technology – are in, then so be it.

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