It came from beneath the sea

China, playing by the rules, applies to a UN agency to extract ore from an underwater ridge in the Indian Ocean

Hungry for precious metals to support its burgeoning high-tech economy, China is intent on becoming the first country to mine the deep ocean floor beyond the legal jurisdiction of coastal states.

Last month, the Chinese government filed an application with the International Seabed Authority – a body created under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – to extract ore from an underwater ridge in the Indian Ocean.

By accepting the convention’s regulatory authority, China is approaching deep-sea mining like a hockey game, with players competing vigorously within a framework of rules and under the oversight of a referee.

China filed its application on the very first day it was legally entitled to do so. It was only last month – after six years of negotiations – that parties to the UN convention agreed on regulations specific to the mining of “polymetallic sulphides.”

These sulphur-bearing minerals, found around underwater geysers called “hydrothermal vents,” often contain large quantities of gold, silver, copper, nickel and cobalt – which are used in the batteries and electronics of laptop computers, cellphones and hybrid cars.

But China’s foray into deep-sea mining is not a serious threat, since other countries can file their own applications.

Even the United States, which has not yet ratified the UN convention, has no reason to complain. In the early 1990s, Washington used its post-Cold War predominance to secure modifications to the deep-sea mining provisions that enable private industry – including U.S.-based companies – to gain access to this new resource frontier.

Subsequently, both the Bush and Obama administrations asked for the U.S. Senate’s consent to ratification of the convention. Recognizing that these rules offer the best chance for legal certainty and conflict avoidance, they have also accepted them as binding customary international law.

This does not mean the deep-sea mining regime is perfect.

The UN convention requires that countries ensure “effective protection” for the environment during deep-sea mining but provides no guidance as to what effective protection entails. The recently adopted regulations state that the International Seabed Authority shall “establish and keep under periodic review environmental rules, regulations and procedures to ensure effective protection for the marine environment from harmful effects,” and that such rules should reflect a “precautionary approach.”

Such an approach could involve the outright prohibition of mining around hydrothermal vents, because stirring up the seabed spreads toxic sulphides and disturbs the highly specialized ecosystems that flourish in the hot, mineral-laden water.

The Canadian government was the first to apply the precautionary approach to deep-sea mining when, in 2003, it designated the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents as a marine-protected area. Located southwest of Vancouver Island in 2,250 metres of water, the vents fall within Canada’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

Prohibiting mining can offer commercial benefits, because the ecosystems around hydrothermal vents are based on heat-tolerant microbes. In the complete darkness that exists at great depths, these microbes convert chemical energy into organic material, much like plants convert solar energy during photosynthesis. Enzymes from some of the 60 highly specialized organisms around the Endeavour vents are already being used for industrial and medical applications.

Which raises the question: Can deep-sea mining ever be carried out in a responsible way?

A Toronto-based company, Nautilus Minerals, is leading on this front. It is conducting the engineering phase of a sulphide-mining project in the Bismarck Sea, within the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea. As part of an environmental impact assessment required by that country’s government, the company committed to reducing sediment plumes and long-term damage to the seabed ecosystem – including by leaving some of the area around the vent undisturbed so the endemic organisms there can recolonize the mine site.

As the International Seabed Authority establishes detailed regulations and vets mining applications, it should ensure that practices beyond 200 nautical miles follow some combination of these Canadian models.

While the opening of the ocean depths is challenging, the risk of conflict is slight. Even China, hungry with growth, is playing within the rules.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

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