To Protect Seabed, Countries Should Thoroughly Review Proposed Mining Projects

Robust environmental impact assessment process must be a prerequisite before any activities go forward

To Protect Seabed, Countries Should Thoroughly Review Proposed Mining Projects
Deep Sea fish
The tongue sole, which lives in the Arabian Sea region of the Indian Ocean, is one of the species that populate the deep ocean. Scientists still have little information about many deep-sea creatures and how seabed mining could affect them.
Dave Forcucci/Blue Planet Archive.com

As governments around the world begin to sketch out plans for mining the ocean floor, it’s vital that they thoroughly analyze and account for the environmental harm that mining could cause.

Many governments are eager to start mining beneath the high seas—areas of the ocean beyond any country’s jurisdiction—because surveys show the potential for vast stores of oil, gas, metals, and minerals there. But the high seas are also home to a wealth of marine life, much of it highly vulnerable to human disturbances. Further, scientists estimate that many of these areas harbor thousands of species that have yet to be documented.

That’s why it’s imperative that no seabed mining go forward unless and until the effective protection of the marine environment can be ensured. Among other things, the International Seabed Authority (ISA)—the organization that governs all mining activity in the international seabed—must require in-depth environmental impact assessments before any mining activity can begin.

A recent example of why this is necessary comes from the government of India’s ongoing effort to explore the central basin of the Indian Ocean for polymetallic nodules—rock formations on the ocean floor that develop over millions of years and contain nickel, cobalt, copper, and other valuable metals. The Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences recently submitted an environmental impact statement to the ISA—which the authority encourages but does not require—prior to testing prototype mining equipment and solicited stakeholder input.

The Pew Charitable Trusts—on behalf of the Pew-sponsored Code Project, a coalition of scientists, lawyers, and regulatory specialists convened to review the ongoing development of the ISA’s rules for mining—submitted comments to the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences as part of this process. Code Project experts found that India’s impact statement contained significant gaps that, unfortunately, made it impossible to assess whether the country’s test would cause significant environmental harm or provide useful information about the effects of future commercial-scale operations.

In requiring environmental impact assessments, particularly for activities that might affect the sensitive marine life of the deep ocean, the ISA must mandate that the assessments:

  • Provide baseline information through precise and expansive sampling that accounts for seasonal variation over multiple years to identify the human-caused changes that would likely result from mining.
  • Fully canvass and describe efforts to mitigate the risks to species, habitats, and ecosystems.  
  • Detail methodology for not only studying the impacts of a proposed activity over its life span but also for providing information and data that will help predict impacts for future commercial activities.

India’s environmental impact statement required significant improvement on all three counts.

For example, this assessment should have provided a deeper understanding of the extent and behavior of one of the key impacts of a mining operation—its sediment plume. The dust and debris from a mining vehicle could harm marine life on the seafloor and in the water column. In its statement, India should have included a sediment plume model that could have then been verified during testing. Further, the government failed to clearly describe its plans for monitoring plumes. Without those details, it will be impossible for the Indian government to make sound management decisions about future commercial mining.

This is only the second environmental impact statement submitted to the ISA for a test mine. The first, from the Belgian company Global Sea Mineral Resources in 2018, was similarly flawed, and Pew submitted feedback documenting those shortcomings at that time. Without substantial revisions, these two statements will set a deeply problematic precedent for future tests.

Moreover, these gaps lay bare the urgent need for the ISA to adopt strong environmental assessment processes. There is no clear mechanism for the ISA to review impact statements; the decision to proceed with an activity is left solely in the hands of the sponsoring country and the activity’s proponent, often a for-profit company. This is a recipe for fragmented governance and unchecked environmental abuses.

Areas beyond national jurisdiction are classified by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as the “common heritage” of humankind. The convention therefore requires those areas to be managed with an eye toward future generations. Countries must insist that robust environmental assessments are carried out for all mining activities—before they begin—and the ISA must stringently review all impact statements and respond to stakeholder and scientific expert input to fulfill its duty of ensuring effective protection of the marine environment.

Andrew Friedman manages The Pew Charitable Trusts’ seabed mining project.

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Due to technological advances, mining the deep ocean floor is becoming a reality, with potential consequences for the sea’s ecosystems. To anticipate these effects, environment impact assessments (EIAs) are necessary. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is incorporating EIAs into its draft of exploitation regulations.