Mountain ranges, canyons, volcanic peaks, huge abyssal plains, etc., yes, you read that right are a few of the many remarkable features that are not only confined to the territorial landscape but also marks their presence under the sea. Of these features, the ocean floor or the seabed is of special concern that incites the interest of many nation-states spending fortunes on its exploration. You may wonder why is it so? To answer your question let us first understand what constitutes a seabed for deep-sea mining. A seabed, means an area that is beyond the limit of national jurisdiction of a coastal state and is governed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) under UNCLOS, 1982 (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) which declared the seabed as a “common heritage of mankind” i.e., to be administered for the benefit of all mankind. This huge area covers about 50% of the entire seabed of Earth is dotted with a huge amount of treasure, ideally lying on the deep-sea floor waiting to be explored. This treasure found on the seabed is nothing else but polymetallic nodules or manganese nodules which are rounded mineral concretions containing various valuable minerals such as gold, copper, nickel, aluminium, lithium and other rare earth metals to name a few.
What is seabed mining? And how does it work?
The process of collecting submerged minerals and commodities from the seabed, whether by dredging sand or raising material in any other way, is known as seabed mining. Although there is no formal distinction between shallow-water mining and deep-sea mining (DSM), there is a growing agreement that DSM includes the exploitation of minerals from sea beds deeper than 500 metres. There are three different forms of DSM in which industries and nations seem to be interested: Polymetallic nodule mining, cobalt crusts (CRC), and deposits of seabed massive sulphides (SMS), also known as Polymetallic Sulphides.
Deep-sea minerals, related depths and resources found
Deep-sea minerals Depths (in m) Resources found
Polymetallic nodules 4,000-6,500 Nickel, Copper, Cobalt and Manganese
Cobalt rich Ferromanganese crusts (CRC), 800-2,500 Mainly Cobalt, some Vanadium, Molybdenum, and Platinum
Seafloor massive sulphides (SMS 1,400-3,700 Copper, Lead, Zinc, some Gold and Silver
Though still in the experimental and nascent exploitation phase, DSM stakeholders plan to involve two ways for the extraction of these mineral resources. The first method consists of using large, robotic machines or even dredging techniques to excavate the ocean floor in a way that’s similar to strip-mining on land. The robots examine the seafloor sucking up the materials, which are then pumped up to the ship which acts as the controlling centre. From the ship the extracted resources are then loaded onto barges and shipped to onshore processing facilities while wastewater and debris are dumped into the ocean, forming large sediment clouds underwater. The second method involves using huge deep-water submarines which directly reach the depths of the ocean bed, collects resources and proceeds to onshore processing facilities, this is less hazardous to the undersea ecosystem compared to the first technique.
Why is seabed mining seen as the new resource frontier?
The deep-sea floor is home to various precious minerals and metals hidden in underwater ridges, dissolutions and sediments. The number of minerals that occupy the seabed has great potential and advantage over traditional mining as recycling is either impossible or inadequate and the existing burden on terrestrial mines is too large to fill a gap in the market. For instance, sea bed mining can ensure this safety of supply, according to research, the marine sanctuary can alleviate India’s energy crisis by up to 100 years by recovering just 10% of the minerals scattered on the seabed. Another added advantage of deep-sea mining is that there is no need to build roads, infrastructure or relocate communities, assets such as surface ships and platforms can be reused, Sediments generated by underwater mining are melted and resettled, and unlike land, they do not emit carbon, metal grades and amounts are frequently superior to those found in terrestrial ores are the benefits of deep-sea mining over territorial mining.
The legal framework of the existing legal situation
The prospect of deep-seabed mining had long been acknowledged, and it was one of the primary driving reasons for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1982. The legal structure that governs anthropogenic activity on the ocean is influenced by the distance from land. According to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a coastal state’s territorial sea extends 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) from its shoreline and encompasses the air space, the water body up to the seabed, and the subsoil. Coastal states have exclusive rights and control over resources inside their exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) (EEZ). Beyond the national Jurisdiction, the ocean bottom and water above it are referred to as “Area”. The “Area” is designated by UNCLOS as the common heritage of mankind. UNCLOS and Mining code which are particularly important for combating the existing Legal situation.
Furthermore, Part XI of UNCLOS, read together with the 1994 Implementation Agreement sets forth the guidelines and international legal framework for governing the activities related to deep seabed mining and marine scientific research in the area beyond the national jurisdiction. While Article 136 of UNCLOS,1982, talks about the common heritage of mankind which is manifested as, all rights over a resource of an area vested in mankind as a whole, Article 137 states that no State or natural or juridical persons can either claim or acquire or even exercise any rights in connection with the resources present in the Area except under Part XI i.e., to say without the permission of ISA who shall also frame the guidelines and rules for equitable sharing of other economic and financial benefits derived from the area. Furthermore, Article 143 talks about marine scientific research to be carried out exclusively for peaceful purposes and Article 145 states about necessary measures to be undertaken for the protection of the marine environment from harmful effects which may arise from dredging, drilling, excavation etc. or other mining-related activities. Part XII of UNCLOS which discusses protection and preservation of the marine environment also plays a crucial role in governing the activities of deep seabed mining with environmental conservation in the deep oceans as one of its top goals. Another regulation approved by ISA in 2000, “Regulation on Prospecting and Exploration for Polymetallic Nodules in the Area” provides a system for investigating the seabed for polymetallic nodules and it states that all parties contracting with the Authority for mineral exploration and exploitation are bound by these regulations whereas the “Recommendations for Contractor Guidance for the Assessment of Possible Environmental Impacts Arising from Exploration for Polymetallic Nodules in the Area” approved by the Legal and Technical Commission in 2001, dictates rules that must be followed by all commercial companies contracting with the Authority.
The impact of deep-seabed mining on the biodiversity and ecosystems
Scientific experiments have shown that habitats affected by commercial deep-sea mining have not recovered even after 30 years and remain functionally destroyed causing an inevitable loss of biodiversity on an unknown scale which is alarming. For instance, the manganese nodule mining operations can cause significant disruption to the underwater ecosystem by digging up to 200-800 square kilometres (77309 square miles) each year. This dredging not only destroys the livelihoods of the local flora and fauna but also induces at depths an unknown amount of pollution resulting in the cloudiness of the cleanest water on earth.
Moreover, one of the most serious possible consequences of deep-sea mining is that physical disruptions at a single mining site have the potential to wipe out whole species as some types of deep-sea mining churn up fine sediments on the bottom of the ocean floor, such as silt, clay, and microorganism remnants, resulting in plumes of suspended particles. Deepsea mining activities also induce noise, vibrations, and light pollution caused by mining equipment and surface boats these anthropogenic noises may impact marine mammals by disturbing their breeding process. There are also the odds of probable fuel and hazardous product leaks and spills further marine biologists have also raised the concern of increased metal particle concentrations in animals like tuna and resultant biomagnification which can also be detrimental to human health.
India’s Position on Seabed Mining
India took its first step in 1981 when the first sample of nodules from the Arabian Sea was collected by the first research vessel named ‘Gaveshani’. However, it was in 1987 that India was recognized by ISA as a “pioneer investor” and awarded pioneer area for mineral exploration the “Central Indian Ocean Basin and in 2002, India signed a 15-year contract with the ISA to continue polymetallic nodule development activities in the Indian Ocean. After a long period, it was in 2012 that impetus was again given to research deep-sea mining and research of polymetallic nodules when India launched the Polymetallic Nodule Program to explore and develop Central Indian Ocean Basin Nodule Extraction Technologies (CIOB) with sea trials being undertaken by the deep-sea exploration vessel ‘RV Samudra Ratnakar ‘in 2013. In 2016, India signed a 15-year contract with ISA to get the exclusive right to conduct exploration on an area of 10,000 km² which is located near the Rodrigues Triple Junction (RTJ) – a junction in the southern Indian Ocean near Mauritius where three tectonic plates meet. Recently, exclusive exploration rights of India were extended for another 5 years in 2017 and 2018, the Union Government announced the master plan for India’s Deep Ocean Mission with the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approving an estimated cost of Rs 4,077 crore over a five-year term for locating and investigating prospective, “multi-metal hydrothermal sulphides mineralisation areas along the Indian Ocean mid-oceanic ridges.”
Is a pilot project for deep ocean rare mineral mining by the Ministry of Earth Sciences which is scheduled to be completed by 2021-22. This project proposes to send personnel deep into the ocean in a submersible vehicle to undertake ocean research. The National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) is in charge of this project. If the ‘Samudrayaan’ project succeeds, India would enter the league of developed countries in ocean mineral exploitation. India might be the first country in the developing world to take on such a project.
It almost seems ironic that on hand we are working to promote SDGs with SDG-14 talking about protecting and preserving “Life below water” while on the other hand we are renewing licenses and promoting deep-sea mining. Indeed, under these circumstances, it is important that ISA maintains a strict code of conduct and take legitimate actions in case of violations not reeling under political or economic pressure as the sole authority to oversee deep-sea mining.
For India, Advancements in deep-sea mining technologies and research is indeed a welcoming step. Developing proper commercially viable technologies will play an important role in ensuring India’s mineral resilience by reducing our import dependence to obtain important mineral resources, however, to achieve this the nodal ministries should come forward to support and work in tandem with start-ups and industries to create an ecosystem promoting exploration and mining of ocean resources.