by Magdalena Muir
On June 16th, 2014, the Coastal and Marine Union (EUCC) participated in the European Commission (EC) stakeholder consultation on seabed mining. Some background information from the consultation is provided, followed by a brief description of the survey and some of EUCC’s comments.
Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a country has exclusive rights to explore its continental shelf and exploit the natural resources, including mineral resources. Mining activities in this area are subject to the country’s laws and regulation. For EU countries, this may include obligations agreed at EU level such as the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive. Deep-sea mining operations can also be carried out in the international seabed (which is the sea-bed and ocean floor and subsoil thereof beyond the limits of national jurisdiction [article 1 UNCLOS]), for which a licence needs to be obtained from the International Seabed Authority, an intergovernmental body established under the UNCLOS with the mandate to organise and control activities, regulate seabed mining and ensure the protection of the marine environment.
Today commercial scale seabed mining operations are limited to shallow water. Most of this mining is for aggregates – sand and gravel – for the construction industry and nourishing beaches. Other material extracted from shallow water down to about 500 metres depth includes tin, phosphates, iron ore and diamonds.The technologies involved include dredging, vacuum pumps and Remotely Operated Vehicles. Deep seabed mining has been raising interest since the 1960s but no commercial mining activity has begun. These operations would be controlled from a floating platform at the sea surface and involve four broad classes of deposits: polymetallic nodules; polymetallic sulphides;cobalt-rich crusts; and rare earth element-rich deep-sea sediments.
The EC seabed mining survey was broken into three parts: aggregates, shallow water mining of high value minerals and deep sea mining. Each part had a range of survey questions on need for this type of seabed mining, likely involvement, perceived environmental impact and any other issues. The wording of the questions suggested that there might be barriers towards developing these seabed resources, and also an inclination to develop the resources. There were also opportunities for making broader comments, some of EUCC’s most relevant comments being summarized below.
For aggregates, EUCC indicated that aggregate extraction has a bigger footprint than fishing and oil and gas extraction (unless there is a spill). By its nature, it changes the entire seabed, in shallow waters that are adjacent to local communities and affecting other sectors and stakeholders (conservation, fisheries, tourism) that may have other or competing uses with this seabed.
Under aggregates and both types of seabed mining, EUCC stressed the importance of EU supporting dialogue between different stakeholders and interests for all types of seabed mining, and also supporting the development of public and social acceptance for all seabed mining. Public and social acceptance is partly civil society engagement but broader as includes commercial interests for fishing and tourism, and local governments who benefit from all industries in proximity to their communities. it is notable that this approach has already been put in place in some instances for the offshore wind, ocean energy and supporting grid infrastructure. EUCC suggested that a similar approach needs to be developed and implemented with EU support for all aspects of seabed mining.
For shallow water mining of high value minerals, EUCC indicated it is important to consider whether EU needs to be self sufficient with these minerals at any price, or whether is it relevant to consider global prices for these minerals. Some of these aggregate resources may not be present on land within Europe, but there are global markets and available resources at a price that may be more economic than developing offshore EU resources. EUCC noted that seabed mining, and any related refining and high grading activities, will have a disproportionate impact on coastal and marine waters. The related refining process and possible re-deposit of extracted and processed materials means that the coastal and marine impacts will be even more than those associated with aggregate removal.
For deep sea mining, EUCC repeated its comments about whether the EU needs to mine these resources at any price, or whether this mining will be subject to the global prices of these minerals, EUCC noted that deep sea extraction of minerals will be considerably more expensive than extraction of shallow sea extraction of minerals. EUCC observed that as one leaves the shore the scope of concerns and number of affected stakeholders may decrease, but that there still will be concern with affected interests, particularly given possible locations for deep sea mining, and scope of impacts from extraction, processing and re-deposition of materials to the seabed. The main limiting factors for deep sea mining will be economic (competing commodity prices and costs of deep sea mining) and technological. Similarly to shallow sea mining, the environmental impacts will depend on the scope and nature of operations, and whether refining and re-deposition of extracted materials will occur. It will also be important to consider impacts on other economic sectors such as conservation, fisheries and tourism.
The EUCC noted that it is participating as opportunities and supporting funding arise in existing EU projects for seabed mining such as the MIDAS project and the Blue Mining project However, currently, only the academic, scientific and mining sector has been fully engaged in EU MIDAS and Blue Mining projects for seabed mining. EUCC is concerned that EU approval and funding for these EU projects for seabed mining do not fully support the participation of civil society or the broad array of commercial interests in coastal and marine waters. EUCC stressed again the importance of engaging civil society and the broad range of economic interests as early as possible in the development and unfolding EU initiatives for seabed mining and any regulatory or financial framework. EUCC concluded by commenting on the very positive approach for engaging civil society and other stakeholders for offshore wind, ocean energy and grid infrastructure under the Renewable Grids Initiative, and asked that a similar effort be considered for seabed mining.