Resource – rich countries have, for decades, explored and exploited the valuable mineral resources they have been endowed with through large-scale mining activities. Historically, a key aspect of large-scale mining has involved the exploration of minerals through surface/land-based mining which has made significant contributions to developments in growing economies. For instance, In June 2023, Ghana was ranked the number one producer of gold in Africa thus increasing its gold revenue receipts.
Lately, one type of mining exploration with even larger prospects is ocean mining/deep sea mining. The growing interest in mining the ocean is driven mostly by countries’ quest for mineral resources to enhance their mineral acquisition portfolio and an incentive to create economic value for their citizens.
Additionally, the pursuit to mine the ocean floor resonates with the International Energy Agency’s 2021 report to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 since there are scientific studies which suggest that the ocean floor comprises significant resources that are yet to be explored and which may have a targeted application for green energy technologies like electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels.
Despite its potential benefits, various stakeholders have raised concerns about the need for countries to tread cautiously with this new venture and its impact on the global ocean’s ecosystem. It is thus necessary to examine the prospects of mining the ocean floor and review the regulatory regime in place for the exploration of the ocean’s mineral resources including those beyond a jurisdictional area.
The need for ocean mining
Minerals by their nature are unevenly distributed and non-renewable. Thus, with continuous exploitation of minerals on land, the world is likely to see a shortage in minerals once they are fully exploited. Ocean mining helps expand the exploration potential of minerals, in anticipation of a mineral shortage on land.
In addition, ocean floor mining discoveries provide a new realm for extracting diverse minerals in the ocean. Various scientific research and exploration have identified that large quantities of minerals such as gold, manganese, copper and a variety of other minerals and metals can be found on the ocean floor.
The interest in mining the ocean floor has gained global momentum. It has been anticipated that this will reduce the dependency on land/surface-based mining which has caused several environmental and social challenges and concerns over decades. Some protagonists of ocean mining have argued that ocean mining has the potential to provide an economic lifeline for some island nations that are mostly at risk from rising sea levels.
Despite the projected need for ocean mining, there has not been any commercial exploitation of deep-sea mining to date as most work has centered on exploration activities by countries and private investors in national and international waters.
Regulation and sustainability
Regulation of land-based mining
In contrast to land/surface-based mining, ocean mining occurs in international waters and the legal regulatory framework for both instances are different. In Ghana for instance, the key legislation for land-based mining is the Minerals and Mining Act, 2006 (Act 703) and its amendments, which regulate minerals and mining activities. Similarly, other mining jurisdictions have respective legal and regulatory frameworks overseeing and administering their land mining activities.
Regulation of ocean mining – United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
Conversely, as the ocean is a transboundary resource that is shared by several countries, its regulation is not as clearcut. With its transboundary nature, the activities that occur within one nation’s boundary are likely to affect another nation. The ocean is seen as “free range”, belonging to no particular nation.
Prior to the early 1980s, there were difficulties in determining the boundaries of countries along the ocean, their rights, and responsibilities with regards to the use of ocean resources that straddle across different nations. Stemming from these uncertainties, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was established in 1982 and is the genesis of the legal framework to oversee exploration activities on the ocean floor.
UNCLOS has defined the territorial limits of all states regarding international waters. Effectively, Article 3 of UNCLOS on “Breadth of the Territorial Sea” provides that “every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with this Convention”.
Beyond the 12 nautical miles territory, coastal states under Article 56 of UNCLOS also have the right to claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 miles for activities including fishing or drilling for oil and gas. These rights have provided the jurisdiction of states with regards to international waters, making waters beyond 200 nautical miles from coastal states communal property. To illustrate, Ghana’s right to its EEZ has been explored through the development of oil fields like the Jubilee Field and the Tweneboa, Enyenra, Ntomme (TEN) fields.
With the creation of the above territorial limit for states’ coastal shores, there remains a large portion of the ocean that is beyond states’ jurisdiction. For example, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean which has been highlighted to contain large mineral resources has attracted the interest of many states.
International Seabed Authority
UNCLOS has created key institutions that regulate the use of the ocean. The relevant institution here is the International Seabed Authority (ISA) created under UNCLOS to regulate and manage activities of ocean mining that are beyond nations’ jurisdiction and its functions are structured under UNCLOS. The ISA is tasked with establishing a system for environmental protection standards and measures as well as relevant procedural safeguards and institutional arrangements to support ocean mining.
Thus, the ISA regulates and oversees mining activities beyond a jurisdictional area and maintains that “the seabed, ocean floor and subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (referred to as the “Area”), as well as the resources of the Area, are the “common heritage of mankind”.
Through the ISA, state parties organize and control activities for the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources in the Area of its focus and regulate ocean mining beyond the 12 nautical miles of every nation. Presently, the ISA’s focus is on exploration and development of regulatory regimes for the exploration of the ocean floor. The ISA has no authority when it comes to minerals that are subject to the jurisdiction within a particular nation.
Accordingly, any state interested in mining the ocean floor beyond its 12 nautical miles must be subject to the regulations and procedures of the ISA. The ISA provides for mining companies to be issued with a contract/license, however, they must be sponsored by a state that is party to UNCLOS.
The states and private companies that have been issued contracts or licenses have only been involved in exploration and there has been no commercial mining to date. The first deep sea mining license was issued to the Solwara 1 project in Papua New Guinea in 2017. Presently, 31 contracts have been approved to explore minerals in Papua New Guinea’s Area in advance of mining the ocean floor.
Advancements made by the ISA
Despite the licenses approved by the ISA, the ISA is yet to finalize procedures and regulations that will give a green light for states and private companies to begin to mine the ocean floor on a commercial scale, as substantial challenges remain. Many member states have continued to debate the growing interest in ocean mining.
In July 2023 for example, 168 members of the ISA engaged in discussions at the ISA’s 28th meeting in Jamaica and presented opinions on inter alia, environmental management of ocean mining and protection of the marine eco-system. The session failed to approve the regulations and procedures for mining the ocean floor. Thus, discussions on finalizing ocean mining regulations and procedures have been postponed until 2025.
Developments in ocean mining
TMC, a listed Metals Company on NASDAQ have tabled their interest to apply to the ISA to start mining in the Pacific Ocean. The CEO of the company has stated that, the effects of terrestrial mining like deforestation etc. do not exist in the case of ocean mining.
China has also advanced an argument in favor of mining the ocean floor with a claim that the potential of mining the ocean floor is less destructive than mining on land. China has five deep sea mining contracts authorized by the ISA and in 2022, its State Ship Building Corporation revealed its first oceanographic drilling ship.
Critics of ocean mining have tagged this new venture as a potential risk to destroy global marine life and their eco-system. For lovers of seafood, there is the argument that this may be the end of your favorite savories as ocean mining has the potential to contaminate the ocean. To date, there have been several discussions on this subject, and applicants (mining companies) continue to submit applications for exploration contracts in anticipation of potential exploration and commercial extraction in the ocean.
Method of ocean mining
Unlike land/surface mining, ocean mining occurs on the ocean floor. The process has been tagged by some mining exploration industry players and scientific experts as a complex and costly venture that involves extracting mineral deposits from the ocean floor by driving bulky robotic machines/tractors below the deep sea. The robotic machines will be tasked to excavate the ocean floor and materials found are pumped to a ship. Some waste is dumped back into the ocean while the materials that are brought into the ship will be transported onshore for processing.
While technology is still advancing to mine the ocean floor, metal companies such as Impossible Metals in the USA have developed large prototype robots that will pluck materials from the bottom of the ocean. The robots have the capacity to travel 4 miles into the deep-sea, using cameras and artificial intelligence technology to identify and define rock types that contain metals and delineate mineable minerals to ensure the protection of the ecosystem on the ocean floor.
Projected advantages of ocean mining
Generally, mining exploration stands as a cornerstone of the economic fabric of most resource -rich countries. Despite its drawbacks, the growing interest in mining the ocean floor projects some benefits. Advocates have cheered on the potential for ocean mining to meet the rising demand for mineral resources by states, to be able to meet their growing population needs.
The United Nations has projected the world’s population will increase from 8 billion to 9.7 billion in 2050. Advocates present that, ocean mining will not only be providing jobs for the growing population but will also cushion the fiscal regime of states by generating significant revenues to meet their financial obligations.
The ISA provides a profit-sharing regime for ocean mining in international waters, mainly the Area, for the benefit of developing nations. Countries that exploit the Area will be required to make payments, based on their production, to the ISA. These payments will be redistributed to less developed and land-locked countries. It is projected that the inability of a state to partake in ocean mining should not preclude it from enjoying its benefits. In the end, the ISA’s conception of the international sea floor being the “common heritage of all mankind” ensures that all states benefit once the commercial ocean mining operation generates revenue.
Ocean mining has been targeted as an opportunity to advance green technologies. Industry players have predicted that the reserves of minerals used in electric vehicle batteries are in vast quantities on the ocean floor. An opportunity to mine these minerals would meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy. These may aid in the transition to clean energy which requires the use of batteries that will power clean energy.
Furthermore, as the global population continues to increase, there is a need to find resource avenues that will sustain the population growth. Mineral resources are not evenly distributed on land and their non-renewable nature means that they will be depleted without replenishment. Ocean mining is an opportunity to reduce the overdependence on land-based minerals and explore the varied mineral resources in the ocean floor.
To-date, scientific researchers, and organizations have made valuable discoveries and advancements in deep ocean resources. These discoveries have contributed immensely to understanding the marine species and its ecosystem. Continuous research into the ocean is an opportunity to discover the world’s deep ocean.
Projected disadvantages of ocean mining
The projected benefits of ocean mining coexist with pressing concerns such as the disruption of the ecosystem of marine species. Opponents of ocean mining have stated that this venture will wipe out the marine ecosystem developed over centuries and relied on by the world, especially by communities around the ocean. In major countries that rely on the ocean for fishing and tourism, ocean mining is projected to be a red flag due to its environmental impact and ability to displace ocean creatures and surrounding communities.
Detractors of ocean mining have also argued that the ocean’s domain is fragile and still unknown and ocean mining may disrupt potential discoveries yet to be explored for the world’s benefit. They highlight a lack of thorough research on its processes and have stated that the projected benefits from ocean mining are vague at best as against the potential risks to mankind.
Another projected disadvantage of ocean mining is the major environmental impact it may have, such as pollution, from the extraction and processing of minerals. Ocean mining has the potential to wreak havoc on the ocean floor as it acts as a carbon sink by absorbing carbon emissions. Consequently, some countries have contended for a moratorium on ocean mining until its environmental ramifications are studied, identified, and understood.
Additionally, there is a school of thought that the regulation of the ocean mining industry is only at its infantile stage and nations currently do not have the capacity to regulate potential large-scale mining in the ocean. Whilst the ISA continues to hold discussions with its member states, there are controversies on developing domestic state laws towards mining in international waters. Developing countries will struggle in the management of ocean mining ventures and will require time to develop knowledge and insights in these new opportunities as existing mining regulations and practices are based on land-based mining exploitation.
Although developing countries will benefit from the profits contributed to the ISA, ocean mining has been publicized as an expensive endeavor. The exploitation of the ocean’s resources is likely to be spearheaded by countries with strong fiscal regimes and large multinational mining companies that have the financial capacity to undertake these ventures. This outcome is likely to induce developing countries to negotiate agreements that are not beneficial to them. Once countries and companies with such strong fiscal regimes/ expertise move away from the developing countries, the developing countries are likely to be left with interests that have little or no significant benefit for development.
The future of ocean mining
Very little progress has been made at advancing ocean mining activities as there is little knowledge about its potential implications. Today, land-based mining exploitation causes significant degradation to the environment. Although some activists have touted that ocean mining will cause far less degradation, the evidence on this is unclear. Even more worrying is the fact that, the cost for ocean mining appears hefty in comparison to land-surface mining.
While the ISA prepares to hold the next summit, nations and all stakeholders must consider the survival of the global marine ecosystem. Countries must reflect on the lasting impact of ocean mining on communities as each one’s survival is inextricably linked to the other when considering the detrimental effect of a ruined marine eco-system.
Should Ghana be concerned with ocean mining?
Ghana’s marine and coastal environment plays an essential role through fishing and tourism activities. Communities within the coastal zones depend on marine resources as a source of livelihood. The ocean plays a key role in the country’s economic development. The fisheries sector for instance is an important sector in Ghana and between 2017-2020, the sector accounted for 1percent of the country’s GDP.
In the December 2021 report on the “state of the marine environment report for Ahanta West, Elllembelle, Jomoro and Nzema East districts in the Western region of Ghana” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicated that, coastal lands make up nearly 7percent of the national land area and it is also home to about 25percent of the approximately 30.8 million population of Ghana (GSS,2021).
It is not disputed, that Ghana’s marine resources have played a significant role in the economy. With the growing interest in mining the ocean floor, Ghana must consider the potential impact of ocean mining on its economy and the environment. In particular, Ghana has a season where fishing is not permitted. This period is to allow restoration of the fish population for sustainable fishing. Ocean mining may have significant consequences for Ghana if the closed fishing season is not observed. Some of these consequences are overexploitation of fish stock and decline in fisheries.
Ocean mining in Ghana would be an opportunity for resource diversification and will enhance the economic benefits for the country’s growing population. In the World Bank’s 2022 report on Country Climate and Development Report (CCDRS), it stated that Ghana has not maintained the use of its natural resources, thereby intensifying the need to explore other resource avenues.
Today, Ghana’s population stands at 34,121,985 with a 1.93percent increase from 2022. Certainly, there is a need for the country to tap into additional avenues for resources. If Ghana is to venture into ocean mining, it must do so guardedly and monitor the ongoing developments in ocean mining to fully understand the industry and its potential environmental and social impact.
Our marine space is not only an important employment avenue for several coastal communities, but it also serves as a carbon dioxide absorption medium that sustains many communities. The country must not only consider the monetary value of ocean mining but the lives of many ocean species, communities, and the well-being of all Ghanaians. Additionally, Ghana’s mining laws are targeted at land-based surface mining and a decision to explore the opportunities of ocean mining must consider the domestic regulatory measures that should be developed and tested before embarking on this venture. These measures must align with international standards and Ghana’s own development goals.
The projected economic benefits of ocean mining are attractive; however, the ramifications of it must be the foremost consideration before granting exploration and potential exploitation contracts to begin commercial-scale ocean mining. Whilst the growing population demand is touted as a core reason to explore and exploit the ocean’s resources, the ISA and all states must carefully consider its environmental impact and devise regulatory measures that ensure the protection of the marine ecosystem. These rudiments, coupled with extensive research on the “common heritage of mankind”, will provide a better appreciation of the need to mine the ocean floor to the benefit of all mankind.
>>>The writer is a lawyer and an Associate of Koranteng & Koranteng Legal Advisors. Contact: [email protected]