By Sophie Coste
Lying on the abyssal plains of oceans at depths of 3,500-6,000 meters, polymetallic nodules contain essential minerals used in the electric vehicle batteries fueling the energy transition. Enriched in manganese, nickel, copper, and cobalt, nodule fields of interest have been identified in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), Penrhyn Basin, and Peru Basin of the Pacific Ocean as well as in the north Indian Ocean. Reserves of certain critical minerals found in the CCZ alone have been estimated to surpass global terrestrial reserves.
As countries seek to diversify their critical mineral supply chains and meet clean energy goals, the race to secure minerals from the deep sea is heating up.
Internationally recognized deep-sea mining activities conducted beyond countries’ national jurisdiction, also known as the “Area”, are governed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) under the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Any company seeking to explore or develop resources in the Area must partner with an UNCLOS member state. Within countries’ national jurisdiction, deep-sea mining regulations are left up to the state, but they must be no less stringent than international regulations (LOSC 1982, Art. 208(3)).
While efforts have been limited to the exploration of the seabed and mining pilot trials, the ISA will begin accepting applications for development starting in July 2023. This comes after the Pacific Island nation of Nauru triggered a clause in UNCLOS in 2021 mandating that ISA complete its exploitation regulations within two years. Nauru sponsors Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of The Metals Company (TMC). NORI holds exploration contracts in the CCZ and expects to apply for an exploitation license through the ISA later this year.
The U.S. Geological Survey reports that deep-sea mining has the potential to provide 35-45% of the demand for critical minerals by 2065, provided it mirrors the evolution of offshore oil production. In addition to seafloor nodules, other metal-rich reserves on the ocean floor include iron and manganese-rich crusts and seafloor massive sulfides. However, large-scale commercial exploitation of the seabed is likely not on the horizon for another several years.
Nauru’s move garnered significant opposition from several ISA member states concerned about the limited understanding of deep-sea ecosystems and the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining. According to some studies, more than 85 percent of the global biosphere is found in the deep sea (>1000-meter depth), which remains largely unexplored. The impacts of deep-sea mining could be long-lasting, disturbing ecosystems that have evolved over millennia. Scientists worry that sediment plumes from nodule-collecting machines and wastewater discharged by surface support vessels could smother marine habitats. Sediment suspension could also disturb carbon cycling, potentially disrupting the base of the food web within the deep sea located around sensitive hydrothermal vents.
Despite these concerns, proponents of nodule harvesting argue that seabed development activities will have a smaller carbon footprint than terrestrial mining, especially as ore grades on land continue to degrade and the energy required to extract minerals on land increases. While deep-sea mining will not displace terrestrial mining, its supporters believe it has the potential to diversify highly concentrated critical mineral supply chains. This argument is particularly salient for minerals such as cobalt and nickel whose production is currently concentrated within the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia and is subject to major Chinese control.
Enter the United States, which has made the diversification of critical mineral supply chains a national priority. Yet, the activities of both the U.S. government and U.S. companies are limited in the deep sea. The U.S. government can neither hold exploration contracts granted by the ISA nor influence internationally recognized deep-sea standards or regulations while it remains a non-signatory to UNCLOS. A legal loophole within UNCLOS, however, allows U.S. foreign subsidiaries based in and sponsored by member states to hold exploration contracts.
Outside of the UNCLOS framework, U.S. companies interested in deep-sea mining beyond the U.S. national jurisdiction operate in a legal grey area. Under the 1980 Deep Seabed Hard Minerals Resources Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can issue exploration licenses and exploitation permits in the Area to U.S. corporations. Lockheed Martin holds the only two exploration licenses in the CCZ issued by NOAA, which were recently extended to 2027. Not only is NOAA’s authority not recognized by the ISA and international law, but NOAA itself has so far not been willing to authorize exploration activities before additional environmental review is conducted. Additionally, Lockheed Martin has not initiated any at-sea exploration activities, citing “conditions in the metals markets and the lack of international recognition” of its licenses.
U.S. companies can also hold licenses to mine in the national jurisdictions of other states, expanding U.S. opportunities to engage in deep-sea mining. Odyssey Marine Exploration, a member of the Consortium formed by the private Cook Islands company CIC Limited, recently participated in exploration activities in the Cook Islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone. This area is estimated to hold 12 billion wet tonnes of cobalt-rich polymetallic nodules.
While the U.S. government remains sidelined from global efforts to influence regulations within or mine the deep seabed Area, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is leading the charge. China holds five of the 31 ISA contracts, more than any other country. Established in 1990, its state enterprise China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) has collaborated with the ISA to propose regulations relating to exploration and exploitation, share research findings, and serve as a platform for international collaboration with other ISA members. These efforts have propelled China to a global leadership position in deep-sea mining.
Indeed, the CCP has significantly invested in deep-sea mining research and exploration, viewing it as a strategic opportunity to expand its influence over the Pacific and participate in the development of its resources. China established national regulations around deep-sea mining in 2016 and integrated deep-sea exploration into its maritime development goals in its 13th Five-Year Plan. The country also constructed research stations on the disputed Spratly Islands to study the deep-sea environment and its resources as well as conduct several exploration activities in the South China Sea. But China is not alone in its endeavor, and its market power over critical mineral supply chains could be reduced if other nations begin to mine the seafloor sooner.
For instance, India launched its Deep Ocean Mission in 2021 to undertake exploration of the seafloor. It estimates that 380 million tonnes of nickel-rich polymetallic nodules worth $110 billion lie in its national waters. Like China, India plans to extract both nodules and polymetallic sulfides, another form of deep-sea critical minerals whose extraction is more environmentally damaging than nodules. Companies have already begun to capitalize on the Indian government’s interest in developing its deep-sea resources. Last year, TMC entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Epsilon Carbon to complete a pre-feasibility study for the world’s first commercial nodule processing plant in India, which will be powered by renewable energy.
Given the United States’ observer status in the ISA, U.S. influence over the development of international regulations governing the development of deep-sea minerals is limited. Some have argued that it should buck international authority and allow the exploitation of the Area under its own rules; however, this would likely embolden other nations to break away from the ISA to pursue deep-sea mining under less stringent regulatory oversight—perpetuating a global race to the bottom. Until the U.S. government joins the international community in ratifying UNCLOS, the U.S. government can regain its leadership in the deep sea by continuing to spearhead efforts to study deep-sea ecosystems, analyze the impacts of deep-sea mining, and develop solutions to mitigate its potential environmental impact. It can also support U.S. companies seeking to work with ISA member states to responsibly exploit seafloor resources like nodules.
Sophie Coste is a senior at Georgetown University studying Science, Technology, and International Affairs. A former Critical Minerals Policy Intern at SAFE and currently interning at the CSIS Energy Security and Climate Change Program, Sophie is keenly interested in the new geopolitical challenges posed by the energy transition.