The Next Gold Rush: Deep Sea Mining
In the up and coming years, a new gold rush will begin. Buried below daring ocean tides, between sweltering hydrothermal vents and miles of abyssal plain, ocean processes have deposited numerous valuable minerals across the seafloor. Typically, these minerals were once heavily unattainable, but now with the convergence of technological development and political will the valuable ore has been placed within reach.
The South Pacific Ocean for example, is currently one of the first experimental laboratories for deep sea mining. With over 1.5 million square kilometers of ocean floor currently under exploration, Canadian company Nautilus Minerals is one of the world’s first licensed operator for deep sea mining in Papua New Guinea. Highly sought-after miners like gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, and rare earth metals like molybdenum, tellurium, and titanium all can be found forming along the ocean floor. Gold alone found on the sea floor is estimated to be worth approximately $150 trillion. Such discoveries have quickly begun to pique the interests of the global mining industry.
Currently, mining companies can extract precious metals up to two kilometers underwater with today technologies. While the potential future for deep sea mining is substantial, there is skepticism that such mining could be damaging to the ocean and its eco-system. Like the gold rushes of old, the deep sea mining industry is emerging on the frontiers of society, far from legislatures and law enforcement.
Officially, the nascent deep-sea-mining industry is governed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental organization established in 1996 by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It’s task is to coordinate its 168 member nations in establishing and enforcing regulations for the developing deep sea mining industry. However, the ISA is still fighting some temporary (but crucial) set backs. At the moment, the authority still hasn’t created an enforcement agency.
They won’t and they can’t force countries to comply to ISA regulations when drafting their own laws
- Duncan Currie, a legal advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.
Back in 1982, when the UNCLOS was still under development, the ISA under a government agreement was given an application for a mining permit, with two years of development regulations. If the ISA did not finalize its rules after two years, it would then give the country provisional approval with whatever rules it has in place.
So far, the ISA has yet to finalize its regulations for deep sea mineral extraction. It has, however, currently granted 26 permits for deep sea mineral exploration in international waters, yet none for mineral extraction.
While no country has yet to bypass the ISA’s permitting process, “there’s very ltitle to stop them” Curries explains. Currently, deep-sea mining in international waters is still far enough in the future that the regulatory situation has not yet made any country feel compelled enough to push some buttons.
Regardless, there is still high confidence that the ISA will eventually develop and enforce strong polices. Deep sea mining is not a fly-by-night enterprise. Such an operation would require an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, and lots of publicity. Such money would be required from banks, and banks want certainty. The likelihood of license denial are extremely high at this point. A company that opts to go rogue after failing to get ISA approval will quickly find itself without the financial backing it needs to operate.
While there are no regulations yet, the future still looks promising and exciting. We are entering into a wonderful, historic opportunity that could change the face of mining forever.