The International Seabed Authority is the most important club you’ve never heard of. We gain exclusive access to mine its depths.
In his sea-facing reception room in downtown Kingston, Jamaica, Michael Lodge is running out of space. As secretary- general of the International Seabed Authority (isa), Lodge receives diplomatic gifts from all over the world: a commemorative plaque from Mauritius, tapestries from China, Tongan woodcuts. There are so many trinkets that they’ve now filled the shelves and are lining the corridors.
It’s not surprising. The organisation Lodge heads up grants contracts to nations to explore and, some day, extract the wealth of precious metals found in the seabed in international waters. It is perhaps the most important multilateral body that almost no one has heard of.
Deep-sea mining – exploration at a depth of 200 metres or more – is currently forbidden until a set of regulations for the industry can be agreed on by the 167 member states, and the EU, who send representatives to the isa. They’ve been at it for 30 years. But in July 2021, tiny island nation Nauru fired the starting gun: it informed members that it would apply for a contract to extract metals from a patch of seabed in the eastern Pacific. This in turn triggered a clause inscribed in the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, which means that negotiations on the rules for deep-sea mining , so as to assess Nauru’s application, must be finalised within two years.
The next meeting of isa member states is in August and the representatives have entrenched differences to unpick; the pressure is on to find agreement by summer 2023. If there’s a glisten on Lodge’s brow, then it’s probably not just the mid-morning sun filtering in between the blinds.
“You know, we’re not all coming to Jamaica just to go to the beach and to continue discussing something that will never happen,” says Lodge, a Brit who doesn’t mince his words. “In a way, that clause is doing us a favour; it’s concentrating minds.” One thing that irks the team at the isa is the line that we know more about the surface of the moon than the deepest parts of the ocean. No doubt the deepest seabeds are among the world’s last great untouched wildernesses, where almost every expedition uncovers new species and new facets of life at extreme depths. But, Lodge and his colleagues say, we know much more about the deep than is commonly thought – and that knowledge is accelerating quicker than ever before.
There are vast fields of so-called polymetallic nodules – tightly compacted clumps of copper, nickel, manganese and cobalt, fused over millions of years – that form like cobbles in the seabed. These rare metals are crucial for making the batteries that go into electric cars and smartphones, and have been found at a sunless, otherworldly depth of several kilometres called, rather poetically, the abyssal plains. The majority of the world’s cobalt currently comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is rife with child labour scandals and reports of environmental catastrophe.
“Consumers were horrified to learn that their Teslas or their iPhones could potentially have had this cobalt in it,” says Corey McLachlan, head of stakeholder engagement at The Metals Company, a Canadian start-up that has partnered with the Nauru government. His company has designed a mollusc-shaped vehicle capable of sucking nodules off the seabed, and touts its method as a less wasteful, less polluting alternative to any mining that happens on land. In September, a union of environmental campaigners demanded a moratorium on future deep-sea mining, noting the Nauru case and arguing that we don’t know anywhere near enough about the ecosystem of the seabed to start hoovering it. The concern is particularly about the plumes of sediment it will kick up. bmw, Google, and Samsung have all added their voices to the call. McLachlan counters that this industry, unlike any other, is being tightly regulated before any activity has ever taken place: “If we’re going to get to a zero- or low-carbon world, it’ll require a significant injection of new metals,” he says.
Mining the seabed is expensive – a fact that has stymied the industry in the past. But the growing demand for electric vehicles has the potential to spur a gold rush. The job of the isa, then, is to prevent a destructive scramble for resources. Founded in 1982, the isa was modelled on a consensus system like a mini-UN: representatives of 167 countries and the EU gather in Kingston every year (the US never signed up but sends observers) to work out how to manage deep-sea mining outside national jurisdictions, while ensuring that it doesn’t cost us the Earth.
“I don’t report to António Guterres,” says Lodge, as we pass a photograph of him with the current secretary-general of the UN. Indeed, the isa was established as a wholly autonomous body, mandated under the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, the rules governing the use of all oceans and their resources.
“The negotiators [of the convention] had a vision for what was needed so that these minerals do not become a source of war or political instability, at a global scale,” says Marie Bourrel-McKinnon, a French expert on the legalities of the ocean and Lodge’s senior policy advisor. “There was an understanding that if we want to live together, we will need to agree on a regime for deep-sea mining that would one day come alive.”
That day may be closer than we think. The isa’s 50-strong team, representing 20 nationalities in all, are working flat out ahead of the next meeting. Japanese researcher Kioshi Mishiro is just back from seven weeks on a boat in the eastern Pacific, crunching vast amounts of raw data gleaned from the abyss. He enthuses about the importance of the work, “although I did spend the first week totally seasick,” he says with a smile.
Ulrich Schwarz-Schampera holds up a two million-year-old shark’s tooth encrusted with precious metals. “You get a completely different view of light down there,” says the German geologist about his deepest 1,500 metre dive. “Especially with the bioluminescence; you see nothing for miles and then – pow! – a creature flashes and disappears into the darkness.”
We’re taken around the isa’s well-thumbed library of ocean law, and its fastidiously-kept records of every meeting in Kingston since 1994. “It’s good that we’re the ones bringing everyone together to get the job done,” says Jamaican administrative assistant Camelia Campbell. Her colleague and compatriot Sheldon Carter agrees. “It gives me a lot of pride that this is the host country,” he says.
“The growing demand for electric vehicles has the potential to spur a gold rush – or a destructive scramble for resources”
How the isa ended up in Kingston goes to the core of its mission. According to Lodge, the UN wanted global institutions outside of the typical diplomatic centres of London, New York and Geneva; Fiji and Malta were also contenders. Even the tropical modernism of the conference hall, purpose-built in 1982 by a Jamaican architect, harks back to an age of confidence, with locally-woven baskets in the ceiling for acoustics and vast windows that allow light to pour in off the Caribbean Sea outside.
In the same spirit, the Law of the Sea states that international waters and their mineral wealth belong to no one – it is the “common heritage of mankind”. This means that any seabed spoils must be distributed between all nations; rich and poor, landlocked or maritime.
That principled stance, however, has become a sticking point. Economists at mit have been trying to work out how the considerable bounty from deep-sea mining could be divvied up fairly. Previous efforts to find an equation have come up with trivial if equitable amounts, or had countries with vast populations, such as India, taking the lion’s share. Another option, says Lodge, is to set up a sovereign wealth fund for the ocean “to generate more scientific knowledge, to fund international exploration and development projects that would assist least- developed countries”.
Every application to explore for minerals must include a provision of seabed reserved for developing nations. Many small island states with limited resources, such as Nauru, regard this industry as one they might call their own. “We have actually just now started sponsoring exploration,” says Alison Stone Roofe, Jamaica’s permanent representative to the isa, who came to the post after being her country’s first ambassador to Brazil. Jamaica has partnered with a UK-Danish firm, Blue Minerals Jamaica Ltd, to explore for nodules in the eastern Pacific; Tonga, Kiribati and the Cook Islands have their own sponsorship deals.
“I’m very confident that the next few years will be progressive,” she says, referring to the revved-up pace of negotiations at the isa. “We don’t want it rushed. It needs to be rule-driven and with regulations that make sense and really contribute to the protection of the marine environment.”
The clock is ticking. If negotiations aren’t finalised by next July, then Nauru’s application to begin mining would be considered according to what’s been agreed so far – even if the regulations are still in the draft stage. A number of isa member states have criticised the fast-tracked talks, while conservationists insist that it’ll rush through rules at the expense of our oceans. Marie Bourrel-McKinnon at the isa believes that we should have faith in countries’ sense of responsibility. “Trust the governance,” she says. “Trust the fact that multilateralism has been able to save us and protect us for more than 70 years. This is the only way for us as human beings to live together.”
Yet this optimism sounds like a throwback to a more collegial age, when the world had more faith in multilateral bodies and the rules-based order, which nowadays seems permanently on its sickbed. If deep-sea mining proves to be workable and lucrative, what is there to stop powerful or belligerent powers from going down to the most obscure parts of the ocean and taking its riches for themselves? Lodge scoffs at the question. “Who is going to do that, knowing that this is contrary to international law – a rogue state, North Korea? It doesn’t make sense.”
There may be, in Lodge’s office, a ceremonial plate in cyrillic and a Chinese-made model of a fish-shaped submarine but it’s not too hard to think of a situation in which a country has run roughshod over UN rules.
“You need to operate within the regime,” says Lodge. “It’s just such a difficult enterprise to take part in. This needs a high level of investment [and] co-operation.”
Perhaps it’s the vastness of scale in which the isa operates – the great blue beyond all borders – which gives this sense of perspective. As we walk down to Kingston’s waterfront for photographs, Lodge tries to explain one of the great misconceptions about deep-sea mining.
“People think it’s working just out here,” he says, pointing to the calm natural harbour in front of Port Royal. “But no.” Lodge pauses, shielding his eyes and gazing into the hazy, choppy horizon. “It’s sailing for eight days – into all that.”