Applications for deep sea exploration flood ISA

THE International Seabed Authority (ISA) is buckling under the volume of applications received for deep sea exploration in the past year alone, and is contemplating a restructuring of the Kingston-based secretariat to increase efficiency.

Changes may include the addition of a contracts management unit, a proposal which is expected to be presented to delegates at next year’s session.

The headquarters of the International Seabed Authority, located on Port Royal Street, downtown Kingston.

A polymetallic or manganese nodule.
Delegates at a meeting of the International Seabed Authority

According to the secretary-general’s report, which was compiled in May and circulated at Monday’s Assembly of the 19th session, the Authority has issued 14 exploration contracts up to April 2013 — a figure which it said was expected to increase to 17 by year-end. In addition, it said five plans of work for exploration were approved in 2012, and that six were filed with the secretariat up to April this year.

The 14 contracts issued this year represent roughly one million square kilometres of the sea floor. Twelve of them are in relation to polymetallic nodules — rock forms with concentric layers of iron and manganese as well as rare earth minerals — and two for polymetallic sulphides — deposits with three or more metals in commercial quantities such as copper, zinc, lead, iron, gold and silver.

Scientists say deposits found in the sea may contain up to 10 times as much desired minerals as those found on land, but the value of the industry is yet to be determined.

To better appreciate the increase in the number of applications, consider that between 2001 and 2010 the Authority concluded eight contracts for exploration and that between 2011 and 2013, it entered into five. The players over the years have been Belgium, China, Japan, France, India, Germany, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom and a joint venture with Bulgaria, Cuba, Czech Republic, Poland, Russian Federation and Slovakia.

The growing interest in the development of marine minerals, the report said, has significantly impacted the workload of the Authority, particularly in the areas of contract administration and supervision. Also of concern is the absence of a financial structure to determine how much parties are to be paid by those who undertake mining, as well as the lack of comprehensive environmental data to assess the impact of mining.

“…It is apparent that effective management and supervision of the legal and technical aspects of exploration contracts is becoming increasingly complex, time-consuming and demanding in terms of secretariat resources.

“Second, it is suggested that it is now imperative to make progress on the development of an appropriate fiscal regime that would allow those contractors that are in a position to proceed to exploitation to do so.

“And third, it is imperative to ensure that adequate measures are in place for the protection of the marine environment, a prerequisite (of which) is the establishment of an environmental baseline against which to assess the impact of mining on the marine environment,” the document said.

Some of these issues are expected to be addressed at this session as “the consideration and approval of the revised regulations on prospecting and exploration for polymetallic nodules” is listed on the provisional agenda.

The first exploration contracts the Authority signed were in 2001 and 2002. They will expire at the end of 2016 and 2017, respectively, since they are valid only for a fixed period of 15 years, at the end of which the contractor is expected to be in a position to proceed with exploitation, or mining. During the contract period, three plans of work have to be submitted to the Authority for review.

At this year’s session, the Legal and Technical Commission is expected to consider the applications for approval of plans of work submitted by:

* COMRA (sponsored by China)

* Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (sponsored by Japan)

* The Government of the Russian Federation

* UK Seabed Resources Ltd (sponsored by the UK Government)

* The Government of India

* Ocean Mineral Singapore Pte Ltd (sponsored by the Government of Singapore).

The ISA is an intergovernmental body tasked with controlling deep-sea mining in international areas. It has responsibility for distributing proceeds from such ventures to States party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, establishing international rules to protect and conserve the marine environment, and promoting and encouraging scientific marine research.

It was established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982).

The 19th session began on July 8 and continues until the 26th.