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Climate

The Future of Deep Sea Mining Is Being Decided — Without the U.S.

And it’s America’s fault.

Deep-sea mining.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

There’s a lot of metal sitting at the bottom of the ocean. A single swath of seabed in the eastern Pacific holds enough nickel, cobalt and manganese to electrify America’s passenger vehicle fleet several times over. But whether to mine this trove for the energy transition is an open question — one that’s sparked many an internecine feud among environmentalists.

Most of the seabed in question falls beyond the jurisdiction of any one country. This area, the High Seas, covers a whopping 43% of Earth’s surface. And one group decides whether (and how) to mine it: the International Seabed Authority. Created by the United Nations, the ISA counts 168 nations among its members.

This month, ISA policymakers are meeting in Jamaica to hash out the rules of the road for a future seabed mining industry. They’ll debate everything from environmental protection to financial regulation of mining companies.

ISA members include every major economy with an ocean coastline — except the United States.

The U.S. has yet to ratify the global treaty that chartered the ISA back in 1982. That leaves America sidelined as ISA member countries decide on such matters as the fate of the global ocean and the pace of the energy transition. You know, small stuff.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, has been leading a lonely, decade-long quest to convince Senate Republicans to abandon their long-held skepticism of the ISA. “Our hands are tied behind our backs,” Murkowski told me. She argues the U.S. has lost the reins on some of the biggest questions surrounding critical minerals sourcing. “When it comes to the ISA, it’s China that is determining the rules. That’s not a good place for us to be.”

A new, bipartisan resolution in the Senate could finally give the U.S. a full seat at the global table in seabed mining negotiations. The legislation faces an uphill climb but, if passed, could allow the Biden administration to take victory laps on two of its ostensible priorities: ocean conservation and decoupling from China-controlled supply chains of critical minerals.

American exceptionalism at sea

Marine experts affectionately dub the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea the constitution for the oceans. The treaty sets ground rules for all manner of seafaring activity on the High Seas, including transit, fishing, and cable laying. And despite that there was no deep seabed mining happening at the time (there still isn’t, yet), UNCLOS was clear about who owns all that metal under the sea.

“It’s everyone’s property,” Andrew Thaler, a deep-sea ecologist and CEO of the marine consultancy Blackbeard Biologic, told me. “It codifies the idea that this is a shared resource among all of humanity,” said Thaler. “And it has to be managed as such.”

Lofty ideals, with practical implications. Under UNCLOS, a country cannot unilaterally decide to plunder seabed resources for its sole benefit. To mine the ocean floor, nations and private companies must receive various permissions from the ISA, where decisions are often made by consensus or supermajority vote among member countries. Mining operations must also pay royalties to every ISA member for the privilege of accessing (and degrading) humankind’s shared resource.

In Thaler’s assessment, it’s all very egalitarian. “UNCLOS is an incredibly progressive piece of international diplomacy,” he said.

Which helps explain why the U.S. never ratified it.

Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office in 1982 when the vast majority of nations voted to adopt UNCLOS. He wasn’t keen on the treaty’s “common heritage” principle and didn’t want to have to deal with the rest of the world. As the New York Times reported, “the United States, possessing some of the most advanced technology and the most resources to be developed, was unhappy at the prospect of having to share seabed mining decision-making with smaller, often third-world countries.”

The irony here is that Reagan essentially ceded decision-making to those “often third-world countries” by keeping the U.S. out of the treaty. To this day, the U.S. is relegated to observer status at ISA negotiations, the same standing enjoyed by non-governmental organizations like Greenpeace and the International Cable Protection Committee.

The U.S. sends State Department officials to the ISA to follow along the debate and occasionally make statements. But America’s delegation cannot vote on important matters and, crucially, cannot sit on the ISA Council, a subset of ISA members currently drafting comprehensive regulations to govern the financial and environmental aspects of a prospective seabed mining industry. (That all-important rulebook is known as the Mining Code.)

UNCLOS members updated the treaty in 1994 to “guarantee the U.S. a seat on the ISA Council if it ratifies,” among other things, Pradeep Singh, an ocean governance expert at the Research Institute for Sustainability, told me. The U.S. itself played a “pivotal role” in negotiating such favorable terms, said Singh, “but ultimately they still did not ratify.”

Following Reagan’s lead, Republicans have typically remained skeptical of UNCLOS, while Democrats — including the Biden administration—have supported it.

“We ought to join the Law of the Sea,” Jose Fernandez, President Biden’s Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, told me. “We are the only major economy that’s not a member. It hurts our interests.”

Fernandez noted that the Biden administration has neither endorsed nor condemned seabed mining as a source of minerals for the energy transition (“Let’s just say we’re taking a precautionary approach”), but that ratifying UNCLOS would allow the U.S. to better advocate for strong environmental protections and other provisions in the ISA’s mining code.

Inevitably, seabed mining will impact deep-sea ecosystems that scientists are just beginning to map and explore. Research indicates that mining could also interfere with seabed carbon storage and fish migration — and that land-based mineral reserves are sufficient to meet the needs of the energy transition.

Supporters of seabed mining counter that relying on terrestrial minerals alone could perpetuate the environmental and social harms long associated with mining on land, including deforestation, tainted water supplies, forced relocation of mine-adjacent communities, and child labor. They also say it could reduce the cost of acquiring minerals and thus speed the deployment of low-carbon energy systems, although the overall cost of extracting metal has not yet been demonstrated as, again, no one is currently doing it.

A marine technology arms race

Ratifying UNCLOS would require a two- thirds majority vote in the Senate — a towering hurdle in the polarized chamber. But new momentum is building, thanks to a rare unifying force lurking across the Pacific Ocean.

China holds five separate ISA licenses to explore for seabed minerals. That’s more than any other country. (The U.S. cannot obtain such licenses because it is not an ISA member.) Beijing is also pouring R&D money into deep-sea technology.

This is all of concern to U.S. lawmakers looking to friendshore America’s mineral supply chains, which China already dominates. House Republicans introduced a bill earlier this month to develop a U.S.-based seabed mining industry. The brief seven-page document mentions China on four separate occasions.

Among the concerned lawmakers in the Senate is Murkowski. She’s long pushed for UNCLOS ratification over the isolationist objections of her fellow Republicans. But Murkowski sees opposition dissolving amid worries over China’s maritime activity.

“I’ve been working on this issue for a decade plus, and I’ve never been in a Congress where there are more that are engaged on this issue from both sides of the aisle,” said Murkowski.

Mining firms aiming to process their seabed haul on U.S. soil are hyping the China concern, too.

Also earlier this month, a group of more than 300 former U.S. political and military leaders sent a letter to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations urging UNCLOS ratification. Signatories included former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and three former U.S. Secretaries of Defense.

Murkowski hopes to line up enough support for UNCLOS ratification in the Senate to bring the issue to a vote next year, and the resolution currently sits with the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “I feel very confident about the momentum we have right now,” Murkowski said.

A simmering debate

As UNCLOS gains political traction in the U.S., calls for a cautionary approach to seabed mining have grown louder the world over.

More than 800 marine experts have urged a pause on the controversial industry, citing uncertain environmental impacts and risks to ocean biodiversity. At least 25 national governments have echoed those calls at the ISA. Some manufacturers—including BMW, Volvo, Volkswagen, Rivian, Renault, Google and Samsung—have pledged to forgo ocean-mined minerals in their products.

A shift in electric vehicle technology adds another wrinkle to the debate. A growing share of EV batteries sold globally don’t include any nickel or cobalt — two metals found in abundance on the ocean floor — which complicates the business case for seabed mining.

Compared to traditional nickel-manganese-cobalt batteries, these increasingly popular lithium-iron-phosphate batteries are cheaper but provide lower energy density (i.e. range). Consumers in China, the world’s largest EV market, seem willing to accept that tradeoff. But even with a slipping market share, nickel-manganese-cobalt batteries and their constituent elements could see absolute demand grow as the global EV industry booms.

In the name of the energy transition, some countries such as Norway and the Cook Islands have gone ahead and greenlit mineral exploration in the Exclusive Economic Zones off their own coastlines,.

The debate reached a fever pitch over the summer when The Metals Company, a Canadian firm, announced plans to apply for the world’s first ever commercial mining license on the High Seas; it’s partnering with the government of Nauru on the application.

Meanwhile, the ISA is unlikely to adopt a final mining code before The Metals Company submits its application, which is expected as soon as August — a timing mismatch that could throw the seabed mining debate into chaos. (The ISA Council has signaled it would not support the approval of a mining application until regulations are finalized.)

All the while, the U.S. will be watching. And unless the Senate ratifies UNCLOS, it won’t be doing much else.

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Daniel Ackerman profile image

Daniel Ackerman

Daniel Ackerman is a climate journalist covering the material side of the energy transition. His work appears on National Public Radio, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and others.

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