As underwater mining inches closer to the sea, environmentalists worry

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Governments seek to agree on rules for deep-sea drilling.

Governments could soon apply for deep-sea mining treaties in international waters, shrouded in uncertainty and worrying conservationists as calls for a ban on such drilling grow.

States have been negotiating a mining code for ten years to set rules for potential exploitation of nickel, cobalt and copper in deep seas outside national jurisdictions.

But a deal has so far been elusive, with a clause expiring on Sunday that allows governments to apply for deals while negotiations continue.

„I think it’s a very real possibility to see an application submitted this year,” Emma Wilson of the Deep Sea Conservation Alliance told AFP.

„Therefore, it is important for states to be bold and implement the necessary measures to protect our seas,” he said, adding that the International Maritime Organization (ISA) is entering the most important decision-making period in its history.

The ISA was established in 1982 under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is responsible for protecting the seabed on the high seas and regulating activities related to indigenous minerals.

Currently, the Jamaica-based organization only grants inspection permits to these areas, which the UN Convention classifies as „the common heritage of mankind.”

In the summer of 2021, the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru threw a spanner in the works on the decade-long negotiations for a mining code, triggering a clause requiring an agreement to be reached within two years.

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With that deadline now extended, the ISA must consider the request—but not necessarily give it the green light—if Nauru applies for a contract for Noura Ocean Resources (Nori), a subsidiary of Canadian company The Metals.

Nauru officials have vowed not to act immediately, but experts say other companies that finance states’ underwater mining efforts could seize the opportunity.

„I’m not too worried,” Pradeep Singh, an oceanographer at the research institute in Potsdam, Germany, told AFP.

“I think it would be a mistake to submit an application anytime soon, given that states are still negotiating and working on finalizing the regulation.

„The indication is clear that states are very hesitant and reluctant to start mines without regulations,” he added.

’Question of Credibility’

In March, the 36 member states of the ISA Council, a decision-making body on treaties, stated that commercial exploitation „should not take place” until the Mining Code is in force.

But they could not agree on a process for examining a potential application or a precise interpretation of the rule invoked by Nauru.

NGOs, who fear companies could take advantage of the legal loophole, hope the council will take a clearer decision when it meets in Kingston from July 10 to 21.

Meanwhile, Chile, France, Palau and Vanuatu chose to take the debate to the political level.

At their request, for the first time, the ISA’s 167-member assembly will discuss a „precautionary pause” in mining when it meets between July 24 and 28.

„The aim is to put this issue on the table, to have a debate like never before”, French Foreign Secretary Che Hervé Perville told AFP, hoping it would „encourage other countries to follow suit”.

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The coalition backing the ban, even if successful, currently includes fewer than 20 countries.

„By 2024, it will be clear to most countries that a precautionary pause in seabed exploitation is the right thing to do if we are to meet the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss,” Berville added.

At a time when the world has adopted the first treaty to protect the high seas, setting a target of protecting 30 percent of land and oceans by 2030, it’s a „question of credibility,” he insists.

NGOs and scientists say deep-sea mining could destroy habitats and species that are still unknown but critical to ecosystems.

They say it risks disrupting the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide released by human activities, and that its noise could disrupt the communication of species such as whales.

„We have an opportunity to anticipate this new extractive industry and stop it before it does any damage to our planet,” said Louisa Cason of Greenpeace.

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