The Pacific island nation of Nauru and its roughly 11,000 residents are at the center of the increasingly contentious debate over whether the world's seabeds should be mined for nickel and other green energy transition minerals.
The complex fight pits competing visions of how best to protect the environment against each other. Nauru is calling for the rapid electrification of the world's economy to stem climate-warming carbon emissions - a step that requires more minerals - while conservationists believe that mining the ocean floor would threaten the biodiversity of vital ecosystems.
The United Nations' International Seabed Authority (ISA), authorised to permit and regulate mining in waters that fall outside of national jurisdiction, failed after weeks of negotiations in Jamaica to finalize standards late last month for deep-sea mining, which involves extracting polymetallic nodules from the seabed at depths of 4 to 6 kilometres (2.5 to 4 miles).
Negotiations will continue virtually in the coming weeks, but a process triggered by Nauru in 2021 means the ISA must start accepting deep-sea mining applications this July, even if standards are not set.
Environmentalists are concerned that mining companies may soon be able to operate unimpeded across the world's seabeds, though Nauru officials are calling for firm standards so the nascent industry can move forward.
"It's not about having a free-for-all," Margo Deiye, Nauru's ambassador to the United Nations and ISA, told Reuters. "Our interest is in having legal certainty and having responsible development."
Other nations could also apply to start mining come July, but Nauru became the most prominent supporter after triggering the two-year countdown, which it was legally allowed to do under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Nauru is working with Canada's The Metals Company (TMC), which has widely promoted its plans to extract deep-sea minerals for Glencore Plc and others.
Deiye said Nauru will not let TMC apply for a license in July if standards are not in place, but declined to comment when asked whether the country would block applications in the future, citing the confidentiality agreement with the company.
The ISA told Reuters in a statement that it is "fully committed to protecting the marine environment and regulating economic, exploratory and scientific activity in the deep sea."
Studies suggest that undersea plumes of mining waste could disrupt animal migration and that industrial noise that carries over long distances could block communication among whales.
"Right now, the scientific evidence indicates that harm to marine environment would be permanent," said Beth Orcutt, an oceanographer at Maine's Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who participated in the Jamaica talks.
Nauru, which is slowly sinking into the Pacific Ocean, acknowledges that deep-sea mining would cause a disturbance, but is calling for the ISA to ensure baselines are set for acceptable dust, noise and other factors, Deiye said.
"Give us the thresholds so we can do this responsibly, knowing full well that we're in a global climate crisis," Deiye said. "The trajectory that we're on is quite bleak for my country."
Vancouver-based TMC is also pushing for standards to be set, but said it reserves the right to apply for a permit if the regulatory process stalls.
"There needs to be an acceptance of the fact that we need more metals," Gerard Barron, TMC's chief executive, told Reuters. "Why does it make sense to destroy rainforests to mine nickel, but not extract the metal from the bottom of the ocean at a part of the planet with the least life on it?"
CLOSING THE LOOPHOLE
The ISA has a dual mandate under its charter as mining regulator and custodian of the seabed environment, fueling accusations from some environmentalists that it is too close to the mining industry. In a statement, the ISA said its proceedings have been "fully transparent."
Six experts told Reuters the ISA is likely to miss the July deadline to set mining standards, fueling uncertainty over whether and how mining licenses could be granted.
Under existing rules, a mining application submitted by a country must first be vetted by the ISA's Legal and Technical Commission (LTC), which then issues recommendations to the ISA's ruling council. For a license to be granted, the plan would only need the backing of a third of the council's 36 members.
The council could theoretically instruct the LTC not to issue any recommendations before appropriate regulations are set, essentially freezing the process with a bureacratic step, said Jessica Battle of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
TMC and others say they believe such a step would not be allowed under the Law of the Sea and note that many of the ISA's members seem to be on both sides of the issue.
Several countries, including Germany, are calling for a moratorium on the start of the practice, even as they acquire licenses to mine the seabed themselves for the green energy transition.
"The risks must therefore be controllable and environmentally friendly technologies for mining must be researched," Franziska Brantner, Germany's state secretary for economic affairs and climate action, told Reuters. "Otherwise we should keep our hands off it."