Seabed mining

Page - February 4, 2011
The deep seabed, which lies below the oceans beyond the jurisdiction of any state, is home to unusual and rarely studied ecosystems and species. Some hydrothermal vents - underwater 'geysers' driven by volcanic activity - support complex communities of life which are not dependent on sunlight, and may be where life on earth began.

Parts of the deep seabed, such as active and extinct hydrothermal vent fields, are also known to contain rich deposits of minerals such as copper, nickel and cobalt. Until recently, extracting these deposits at several kilometres' depth was too complex to be economical. But over the past few years, rising commodity prices and new technologies have prompted several countries to apply to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) for permission to explore the minerals of the deep seabed, which lies beyond the jurisdiction of any State.

Deep seabed mining will inevitably disturb the ocean floor and the waters above it, with environmental consequences that cannot be properly foreseen. What is certain is that it will release large clouds of sediments, potentially including heavy metals, into the ocean. The ISA believes that deep seabed mining could one day "yield one of the largest areal impacts for a single type of commercial activity on the face of the earth."

The important question is who will be held responsible if deep seabed mining results in serious damage to the marine environment? The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets the legal framework for deep seabed mining, provides only part of the answer. Seeking to fill the legal blanks, in May 2010, the ISA requested an Advisory Opinion from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In particular, ISA asked the Tribunal's Seabed Disputes Chamber to clarify what measures States must take when they sponsor a company to explore and exploit deep seabed resources, and if they can be held responsible for any damage caused by the company.

Greenpeace International and WWF jointly addressed an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") submission to the Chamber, arguing for strong environmental safeguards. In particular, we argued that the sponsoring State should be responsible for any environmental damage which the mining company cannot or does not repair - even if the damage was unforeseeable and the sponsoring State was not at fault. Deep seabed mining is a high risk activity and that risk should be borne by the companies and States undertaking it, not by the environment and other States. Recognising that such a rule could make it difficult for small developing countries to benefit from deep seabed mining, the submission proposes the establishment of an international insurance fund paid for by a global levy on the industry.

For additional documents relevant to the case, including the Chamber's Advisory Opinion, go to the ITLOS site directly.


Related Documents

  • ITLOS Petition


    Petition of Greenpeace International and WWF to intervene in seabed case Read more >

  • ITLOS Memorial


    Memorial of Greenpeace International and WWF submitted in seabed case Read more >

  • Undersea Mining - briefing


    Humankind has been mining on land for various minerals almost since civilization began. But as land‐based minerals and fossil fuels become depleted and prices rise, the search for new sources of supply is turning to our sea floor. Read more >