Ottawa at Odds with Several Asian Governments over Deep-sea Mining

The world has reached a “watershed moment” on whether parts of the ocean’s seabed should be mined for resources needed for green technologies. For years, the UN’s 169-member International Seabed Authority (ISA), which can grant permits for mining in waters beyond national jurisdiction, has been trying to hammer out an agreement on whether to authorize deep-sea mining, and, if so, what standards mining companies would need to meet.

Thus far, that agreement has been elusive, and the discussions have brought into sharper focus competing visions of how best to transition away from fossil fuels. The debate also pits Asian powers like China, Japan, and South Korea, who want to proceed, against Canada and others, who are urging caution.

Canada calls for moratorium while others dig in

At issue in the debate is what deep-sea mining could mean for biodiversity loss, including in an area of the southwest Pacific Ocean that is a significant source of nickel, a key input in batteries for electric vehicles. Proponents argue that, on balance, seabed mining poses less of a threat to biodiversity than major on-land nickel mining in places like biodiversity-rich Indonesia.

Opponents, meanwhile, say that there has been insufficient research on the damage that could be caused by the practice. Critics have also raised concerns that such damage could be irreparable. On Monday, Canada's foreign minister, natural resources minister, and fisheries minister jointly called for a moratoriumon commercial seabed mining in areas beyond national jurisdiction until more evidence can be collected and analyzed.

Turning point?

The consequences of the ISA’s decision are not hypothetical; the current discussion was triggered by a request from the small Pacific Island nation of Nauru, in partnership with Canadian mining firm The Metals Company (TMC), which has been exploring nickel potential in the waters around Nauru — an area believed to have the world’s largest undeveloped nickel deposits.

In July 2021, the pair notified the ISA that it planned to move from exploration to extraction, starting the clock on the two-year timeframe within which the ISA needed to create regulations. But the deadline for doing so has already passed, and Nauru and TMC could proceed even without clear regulations.