UK Deep Sea Mining Bill

via Papua New Guinea Mine Watch ||

A new law to be passed by the British Parliament is intended to make it easier for UK companies to dig up the ocean floor in the Pacific – as the briefing below from the government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office makes clear. It seems the UK still views the Pacific as part of its Empire which it should be free to rape and pillage for its own profit…

UK Government Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London

This Bill is about the deep ocean bed in areas beyond the limits of any national jurisdiction, in other words at least 200 nautical miles from the coast of any state[1].  Commercial exploitation of minerals from this area is still a concept rather than a reality, but as technology has developed to the extent where mining in such extreme environments is a possibility, exploration activity is increasing.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provided for the establishment of the International Seabed Authority, which became fully operational in 1996, two years after the entry into force of UNCLOS. The Authority organises and controls all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area. The Authority has developed regulations for the exploration of various mineral deposits and has subsequently issued licences to applicants for this activity.  Applicants must be sponsored by a State party to UNCLOS, and must be in possession of a licence from that State party, which serves to ensure the State party is able to exercise national control over the company or organisation concerned. In 2012 the UK Government sponsored the first application for an exploration licence by a UK company for an area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and is sponsoring a further application in 2013 in a similar area.

Current exploration activity mainly concerns polymetallic nodules. These are found in high density in parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, usually at depths of 3000 metres or more below sea level.  They contain manganese, copper, cobalt, nickel and other trace elements.  Other exploration activity is focussed on polymetallic sulphides, found on ocean ridges such as the mid-Atlantic ridge, and exploration for cobalt-rich crusts, found along seamounts and ridges is expected to start soon.

Countries involved in these exploration activities, predominantly through research institutes, include Germany, France, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and India. More recent applications sponsored by Tonga, Nauru and Belgium, have been made by commercial enterprises.

The current UK legislation, The Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Act 1981, predates UNCLOS and the establishment of the International Seabed Authority and in a number of technical respects is inconsistent with the Convention.  The 1981 Act is also limited to one type of mineral only. The purpose of the Bill is to bring UK legislation into line with certain provisions of UNCLOS and to broaden the scope of minerals in the deep sea for which the Government can issue licences, thereby ensuring that British companies can potentially benefit from all the opportunities available.

As the world’s demand for minerals continues to grow, and land-based sources become overstretched, the search for minerals in the deep sea is the inevitable consequence.  Any type of mining, land based or from the sea, causes some environmental impact, but properly conducted activities to explore the seabed for minerals should have little potential for causing serious harm to the marine environment.

Little is known yet about the potential impact of deep sea exploitation but by helping to place UK companies at the heart of this frontier industry, under the control of the UK Government, we can ensure that these companies comply with the highest environmental standards, and there is due recognition given to the environmental impact in the development of international regulations for the possible exploitation of seabed minerals in the future.

[1] Except where a rock belonging to a state may be deemed so small as to be unable to sustain human habitation or economic life of its own.  Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea such rocks can only generate a territorial sea (up to 12 miles) and not a continental shelf.



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