International deep seabed mining kicks off under “secrecy agreement”

Water Today

Water Today interviews Dr. Catherine Coumans, MiningWatch Canada

The full interview is available here.

WT: This is quite a topic. Can you tell us what is this press release you have out, and why is it so important?

Catherine Coumans: I don’t know how much your listeners/readers are familiar with deep-seabed mining.

This is something the mining industry dearly wants, mining the deep seabed, pushing for this to go ahead. The way this would be allowed in international waters is there is an agency called International Seabed Authority (ISA) which is based in Jamaica, which almost no one has heard of, which is made up of 168 states and the European Union.

A Canadian metals company is at the forefront, promoting, marketing and pushing to have this industry go ahead, a whole new expansion of mining into the least disturbed ecosystem on earth, also extremely fragile, and the least understood ecosystem.

As of now, there is no deep seabed mining happening, but there are thirty-one concessions that have been granted for exploration. The Canadian metals company is in front, pushing for really large-scale exploration.

So, the Canadian metals company prepared an environmental impact statement to do a major exploration. They want to get 3,600 tonnes of “poly-metallic nodules”, which are habitats for all kinds of (life)in the deep seabed. The permitting request and documentation were very weak, and the ISA in June (2022) had said “No. You don’t have enough information here for us to allow this to go ahead”. 

Then lo and behold, in September (2022), they (the Canadian metals company) had a permit. They got that permit through something called a “secrecy agreement”.

WT: Tell me about that.

Coumans: I don’t know how much you want to go into the weeds here. 

The ISA has a subcommittee called the legal and technical committee, tasked with approving - or not - prospectus submitted by companies to do projects, whether a (mining) permit or a concession to do exploration. The legal and technical committee had actually said last summer (June 2002), “No” the information provided by the metals company is not sufficient to grant a permit for exploration, and this was public information, we knew this.

The company put out a press release in September, even before the ISA, to say, “We have been given a permit, we are off, we are going!”.

Later, information came out that a small working group was put together, so not the whole ISA legal and technical committee, but a small subgroup which had apparently reviewed “new information” provided by the metals company. This information was not made public, was not disclosed to those engaged in the process, and has still not been made public anywhere. The working group said they now think (the permit application) is ok, this should go ahead, and you have 24 hours to respond if there is a concern. They claim they got no emails back, so the permit was granted. They called it a secrecy procedure.

WT: I want to go back a step or two, this is an organization that has some sort of relevance on the world stage, I am trying to understand, they are out of Jamaica, and this is a globally sanctioned group. How was the ISA established?

Coumans: It was established in 1994 under the United Nations (UN) but it is an autonomous body. It is very unique, in that it is a multi-state governance body over the private sector, and as far as I know, is the only example of this. It’s very bizarre.

What you need to understand, is that the deep seabed in international waters is actually designated by the UN as the “Common Heritage of humankind”, or mankind, now we call it humankind.

That is, it doesn’t belong to any one state. And yet the mining industry has discovered these really rich habitats for metals, (being) habitats for life in a very unique part of the world, and they want to mine these habitats.

In 1994 when the ISA was created, it had two very much conflicting mandates: one was to protect the environment, the ecosystem of the deep seabed for humankind, and the other was to permit mining if it would not destroy the ecosystem. That is impossible.

At the time it was thought this ecosystem was quite barren, that there wasn’t much down there. We are talking four to six kilometers underwater. There is huge pressure down there, it’s completely dark and cold, just above zero degrees. The thinking was, if there was anything down there, it wouldn’t be much. This, we now know, is not true. We know this is an incredibly vibrant eco-system, there are more species down there than we imagined, but only a fraction of those have been identified, and none have been studied, as to how they relate to other organisms in the entire water column, all that work has not been done.

Read the full interview here.