Mandates of International Seabed Authority & an introduction to Rare Earth Minerals

  • ISA: International Seabed Authority | HQ @ Kingston, Jamaica
  • ISA is a UN agency estd in 1995 under UNCLOS (all 167 member nations under UNCLOS are also ISA members) and has the mandate to issue licenses regarding exploration and mining of deep marine resources particularly deep seabed mining in International waters (beyond 370 km in Continental Shelf region)
  • Note: US is an observer state
members in blue | observers in yellow

ISA has set environmental regulations regarding marine exploration activities BUT not mining regulations for underwater deep seabed mining.

By now ISA has opened 1.2million sq. km area for seabed exploration (one-third of India’s area) by granting 26 licenses since 2001 for exploration and mineral rights.

Who can engage in seabed mining?

  1. ISA
  2. State owned enterprises
  3. Govt. sponsored companies

Govt. which applied for licenses include – China, India, Russia, Singapore, Germany & UK & US defence major Lockheed Martin

But why is Seabed mining such a hot topic?

The vast repository of minerals, including the precious cobalt, zinc, manganese and rare earth minerals (REM) that are needed for smart phones, laptops and hybrid cars, are present in this hitherto unexplored area.

Typically, an ore from seabed deposit is 7 times enriched with minerals than that mined from land. So you can imagine the earnesty with which nations and organisations want to pursue this area of influence (as they run out of resources on land).

This repository of minerals is found in 3 kind of ores:

  1. Polymetallic manganese nodules that remain strewn across the ocean floor
  2. Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts that cover the seamounts
  3. Polymetallic sulphide deposits around hydrothermal vents

A hydrothermal vent is a fissure in a planet’s surface from which geothermally heated water issues. As you can imagine, these would be commonly observed in volcanically active places. 

At least 20 countries have been carrying out exploration activities since 2001. Deep sea mining is witnessing a fast revival after a lull of almost 40 years.

What are these Rare Earth Minerals (REM)?

  • Rare earth minerals – 17 in numbers – D block elements – Important because of their applications in the fields of renewable energy (wind turbines, solar panel), defence (LASER, Radar), electronic gadgets (smartphones), Hybrid vehicle components, Medical imaging etc.
  • China produces ~95% of the total REMs followed by USA and India. Add to that, China has imposed quota limits on REM’s exports

What’s up with India wrt. REMs?

  • In India, Monazite is found mainly in Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. The problem here is that its extracts contain radioactive Thorium because of which it cannot be stored (hence, not mined)
  • That being said, India has collaborated with Japan since 2012 to develop rare earth materials
  • An agreement was signed for exploration and production of rare earths, following which India is setting up a monazite processing plant in Odisha

This is how India’s resource distribution looks like

If you were an environmentalist, you would list down these (adverse) consequences to sea bed mining

  1. Impact to the endemic species because of huge churning of the sediments and debris – exposure to sunlight might impact the growth and reproduction of species
  2. Destruction of marine species may impact the CO2 absorption capacities – hello global warming!
  3. Large robots, accompanied noise pollution may destroy habitats of rare species

Concerns regarding ISA and mining licensing approvals

  1. ISA does not have the power to decide whether seafloor mining is good or bad. Its establishment is more tilted towards “exploiting” the resources
  2. There is insufficient scientific data to understand the impacts of deep sea mining; there are no regulatory frameworks in place to govern mining operations; and the capacity to enforce such frameworks does not yet exist
  3. No taxation/royalty on seabed miners, to keep a check on extraction of ores and controlling the mining through yearly ceiling limits and penalty clause to violators


Published with inputs from Gaurav
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