Pacific Island of Nauru triggers “two-year rule” in a move to begin controversial seabed mining

On June 30, the Pacific island of Nauru sent a letter to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) stating plans to begin deep-seabed mining in two years. The announcement triggered a rule within the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, forcing its governing body, the ISA, to evaluate Nauru’s proposal and develop regulations within two years. 

The President of Nauru, Lionel Aingimea, sent a letter to the ISA drawing out plans for deep-sea mining to be conducted by Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of The Metals Company (TMC). His letter also mentioned that Nauru has almost completed a draft for deep-sea mining regulations to present to the ISA after seven years of work. Aingimea requested that the ISA “complete the adoption of rules, regulations, and procedures required to facilitate the approval of plans of work for exploitation in the area within two years.”

Nauru is a sponsoring state of NORI, a subsidiary of TMC, which is the merger of DeepGreen and Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation. State sponsorship is a requirement under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea for private mining companies to operate. Kiribati and Tonga also sponsor TMC for deep-sea mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean.

The ISA released a statement recognizing Nauru’s letter of intent and that it would resume work on mining regulations despite previously experiencing delays from pandemic travel restrictions.

Seabed mining involves collecting polymetallic nodules that are typically the size of a potato but can be as large as a head of lettuce. These nodules are filled with metals like nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese – and would be used mainly for batteries in electric vehicles. They are also used in renewable energy storage, electricity-generating windmills, and solar panels.

DeepGreen chairman and CEO, Gerard Barron, rebranded his approach to seabed mining after financially backing Nautilus Minerals, who ventured into seafloor mining in Papua New Guinea. The company’s venture resulted in a loss of half of a billion dollars of investor money, destruction of seabed ecosystems, tension with Papua New Guinea’s government, and ultimately the company’s bankruptcy in 2019. Barron revamped his approach and marketed TMC as a sustainable, environmentally friendly company and argued that the deep-sea mining industry is very different from terrestrial mining. Barron told the Wall Street Journal, “We were positioning this incorrectly as a big mining, deep-sea mining project, which it was. But it wasn’t the way that we were going to garner support from investors to make this industry a reality.”

Environmental groups argue that declaring deep-sea mining as “green” is somewhat of a stretch and that there is not enough long-term research to support the idea that it is more sustainable than terrestrial mining. Several environmental groups are protesting TMC’s moves to begin mining, citing too little information on the extent of damage it could cause to the environment and biodiversity.

Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that there was no evidence supporting seabed mining as less harmful to the environment and biodiversity than terrestrial mining. SOAC’s filing said, “We cannot predict … whether the environment and biodiversity is impacted by our activities, and if so, how long the environment and biodiversity will take to recover.”

The World Wildlife Fund said about Nauru’s decision, “Forcing the regulations through prematurely and without due process or enough scientific knowledge about the deep sea is not in line with the precautionary approach and other principles of international environmental law.

A New York Times article explained that Nauru’s largest source of annual income is from phosphates. “According to official estimates, the phosphate will be gone in another 10 years or so, leaving 80 percent of the island’s surface a desert of jagged coral pillars and twisting gullies, impossible to convert for farming without topsoil.”

In 2018 Nauru’s then-president Baron Waqa said in a promotional video uploaded by TMC, “My government continues to look for other revenue sources for Nauru, not just now but for the future. This venture will ensure that our revenue will be well-diversified for our children and their children, well into the future.” The move from phosphate mining to seabed mining could prove detrimental to Nauru’s environment and surrounding waters.

The ISA released a statement recognizing Nauru’s letter of intent and that it would recommence work on mining regulations, despite previously experiencing delays from COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Read more in this PEW related article: Green investment interest in the Pacific increases


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International Seabed Authority Press Release



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Suzanna DeCosta

Digital Journalist, Pacific Environment Weekly

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