During the International Seabed Authority (ISA) assembly meeting, ISA leadership reportedly obstructed efforts to allow open discussion on the implications of an arbitrary “two-year rule” deadline for deep-sea mining and set a date for the next meeting after the deadline for regulations to be approved
During the annual International Seabed Authority (ISA) Assembly meeting, held in Kingston, Jamaica, from August 1 to 5, 2022, ISA Secretariat and elected assembly officials obstructed the open discussion of deep-sea mining regulations, including a policy that paves the way for deep-sea mining to take place. Additionally, the next assembly meeting was scheduled to occur after a key deadline that could facilitate exploitation activities.
During both the Council and Assembly meetings, ISA Member States issued multiple calls for a discussion on the implications of the two-year rule to be added to the agenda. Ambassador for Chile, Constanza Figueroa, submitted a formal request for the issue to be added to the agenda for the Assembly meeting.
However, ISA leadership refused to add it to the official agenda and only allowed it during discussion of “other matters.” On the meeting’s final day, ISA cut conversation on the topic short, citing time concerns, despite ending the Assembly meeting a day and a half early.
Dr. Diva Amon, a deep-sea biologist representing the ISA Observer, Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, said: “There is a growing body of scientists, industry leaders and now governments calling for a pause to deep-sea mining until sufficient and robust scientific information has been obtained to make informed decisions as to whether deep-sea mining can be authorised without significant damage to the marine environment and, if so, under what conditions.
“Pushing through regulations without allowing ISA Member States and Observer organisations to properly debate the mining regulations and the consequences of proceeding without a robust understanding of important but vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems will not be to the benefit of humankind.”
The invocation of a treaty provision at the ISA known as the “two-year rule” in 2021 – by the sponsoring state Nauru – has put the body comprised of 167 Member States and the EU under pressure to rush regulations that would theoretically allow exploitation activities to commence as early as next year. The provision stipulates that if the ISA Council fails to complete regulations within two years, it would still have to consider and potentially approve any mining applications despite the absence of regulations – giving a green light to industry eager to begin exploiting the deep sea.
Many ISA Member States already feel that the two-year deadline has not left enough time for debate within the body over the potential impacts of deep-sea mining on ocean health and our climate, further exacerbated by the limited time ISA is giving to the issue and the impact of COVID-19 on proceedings.
In making their request to have the two-year rule included on the Assembly meeting agenda, the Chilean delegation issued the following statement: “We all know that there’s an elephant in the room… and we have not had the opportunity to debate in person, and I believe this is the best opportunity to discuss here in the Assembly. I believe that more than taking a decision, we need to hear one another and present various ideas in order to find what to do next.”
The deadline is now just one year away (July 2023), and the ISA is still far from completing negotiations on a long list of essential matters, including establishing the environmental impact of mining operations on critically vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems. Without addressing these concerns, many feel exploitation activities should not be allowed to commence, as outlined in a recent paper in Marine Policy.
Despite this, the ISA Secretariat revealed at the end of the meeting that Assembly members would not have another opportunity to discuss the topic before the two-year deadline passes in 2023, which leaves much in doubt about how the ISA should deal with any exploitation application to begin mining.
During the brief, one-hour session, during which Assembly members discussed the two-year rule, and in unplanned interventions earlier in the week, several delegations issued statements calling for a more cautious approach to setting regulations:
Chile started the discussion by suggesting the Assembly “establish a cautionary pause of 15 years during which we cannot approve plans for exploitation.” Chile’s delegate, Ambassador Constanza Figueroa, asked: “Are we willing to be accomplices to the unknown and irreparable damages submarine mining might cause?”
Costa Rica’s delegate, Ambassador Gina Guillen-Grillo, told the Assembly there should be a “precautionary pause” on deep-sea mining due to the lack of data about the ocean ecosystems that could be destroyed, noting: “This is an immense responsibility, and it’s on all of our shoulders (…) In many parts of the report, there are mentions of obligations not fulfilled due to limitations caused by COVID – but what Costa Rica does not understand is why the pandemic wasn’t taken into account in activating a two-year deadline since the request arrived during the worst of the pandemic.”
South Africa recommended asking for an advisory opinion from the Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
Ecuador’s delegation stated: “We are not ready” to allow deep-sea mining and expressed support for Chile’s call for a 15-year moratorium on mining. “If we act with haste, we could put ourselves in irreversible situations with respect to the marine environment.”
Trinidad and Tobago’s delegation stated: “Speed should not take precedence over quality. And in this regard, we believe that incomplete or less robust Exploitation Regulations should not be adopted in an attempt to meet a deadline.”
Italy’s delegation stated: “Deep-sea mining should not commence until we approve prior to exploitation, a strong regulatory framework ensuring that effects would not be a detriment to deep-sea ecosystems.”
Spain’s delegation stated: “The famous two-year clause does not oblige us to move to the exploitation phase if the environmental measures are not adequate.”
The representative for the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, Dr. Patricia Esquete Garrote, stated: “The scientific tools we have are still not available on a sufficiently wide basis and studies only reach a certain point. We would like to reaffirm that triggering the two-year rule is contrary to the precautionary approach. Relevant scientific research under these conditions cannot be completed in the two-year time frame and published in time.”
These statements come on the heels of a growing chorus of voices questioning allowing deep-sea mining to move forward with so many unanswered questions.
Prior to the ISA negotiations, during the UN Ocean Conference, a number of countries expressed their concern about the potential impacts of deep-sea mining on ocean health and the rapid pace at which regulations were being set. In June, Chile issued a statement calling for a 15-year moratorium, and, during the ocean conference, world leaders and parliamentarians issued similar calls with the launch of the Alliance of Countries for a Deep-Sea Mining Moratorium and the Global Parliamentary Declaration Calling for a Moratorium on Deep Seabed Mining. These calls come on the back of a range of similar concerns issued by leading ocean scientists and top EV manufacturers/battery producers.