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March/April 2023

Diving deep on the international law of seabed minerals

Scott Segal


  • Explores the importance of seabed minerals in depth.
  • Provides insights into the history and future of the International Seabed Authority.
  • Explains how a comprehensive regulatory framework for seabed nodule collection would promote equitable distribution to the developing world of billions of dollars of natural resources.
Diving deep on the international law of seabed minerals
Jason Edwards via Getty Images

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The importance of seabed minerals

Seabed minerals, and in particular polymetallic nodules, offer a preferred solution to challenges facing the uptake of renewable electricity, electric vehicles, and other technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Shortages of critical minerals impede the world’s ability to transition away from fossil fuels, and these minerals are integral components of the solar panels, wind turbines, battery storage, and grid infrastructure needed to reliably power the global economy. Although these clean energy technologies can reduce the necessity of extracting fossil fuels, they require substantial quantities of metals that have their own externalities. Cobalt supply, produced primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been plagued by child labor issues. Nickel demand will primarily be sourced by clear cutting tropical rainforests and displacing Indigenous groups. Copper and other resources are often found on Indigenous lands and are undergoing massive price increases as terrestrial supplies decline in quality. Further down the supply chain, processing of important metals is controlled by countries hostile to American interests, particularly China and Russia, which can exacerbate dependencies and jeopardize national security. 

Fortunately, polymetallic nodules sitting unattached on the Pacific Ocean seafloor contain high concentrations of these critical minerals, and they constitute one of the richest untapped sources of the raw materials needed to enable the clean energy transition. In particular, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), halfway between Hawai’i and Mexico, is estimated to possess over three times more cobalt, twice as much nickel, and as much manganese as all known land-based stores, as well as a substantial amount of copper. The nodules resource from the CCZ area as a whole could electrify the global transport fleet several times over. As the United States and the world seek to promote an electrified global economy, it is imperative to look to the seabed for these resources as an alternative to more destructive and inefficient land-based mining in growth markets outside of U.S. visibility and control.

The history and future of the International Seabed Authority

A purpose-built international body is negotiating a set of regulations that may well shape global supply chains for critical minerals. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental body based in Kingston, Jamaica, and established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), regulates mineral resources in international waters. The ISA has a proven 27-year history of developing comprehensive regulations through transparent and inclusive negotiation, requiring that a precautionary approach be utilized to develop regulations ahead of any commercial activity—a world first in industrial history. Exploration regulations for polymetallic nodules were first released in 2000 and were updated in 2013. Development of commercial regulations began in 2014 and have included multiple drafts incorporating stakeholder consultation. A road map for finalizing the regulations was developed in 2022, targeting completion in 2023. The aim of the regulations is to balance economic needs with rigorous environmental protection, requiring any entity undertaking activities in the international seabed to abide by stringent environmental requirements.

The history of the ISA began with negotiations over the UNCLOS, which establishes rules for international maritime law. During this negotiation process, the Maltese delegate to the United Nations argued that “the sea-bed and the ocean floor are a common heritage of mankind.” This guiding principle was incorporated directly into the UNCLOS’ establishment of the ISA. The treaty still permits the recovery of these ocean resources, so long as the mineral extraction is performed in accordance with international regulations, and so long as there is “equitable sharing of financial and other economic benefits.”

The developing ISA regulatory framework

Similar to other multigovernmental bodies, the ISA requires the important task of reaching consensus among its 167 member states to create a global regulatory framework. This agreement would be one of the most robust international regulatory systems in existence, governing everything from environmental protection of the seabed to equitable distribution of royalties from resource collection operations. Although the United States does not have voting rights at the ISA, owing to its refusal to ratify UNCLOS, it has an important interest in these negotiations and their impacts on the global clean energy transition. The country is also a prospective location for the processing of nodules, which would bolster reshoring of critical mineral supply chains as called for in the Inflation Reduction Act.

The developing regulatory framework for polymetallic nodule collection offers an opportunity to promote both global economic development and international equity. Many small island developing states view seabed resources as a route to fighting climate change while leveling the playing field with developed nations, facilitating economic and climate resiliency. These small island nations are paying the highest price for a problem that they did not play any part in creating—rising sea levels that threaten agriculture, living space, and water quality. Nauru, an island nation devastated by colonial phosphate mining, is a leading voice in this space. Nauru’s ambassador to the ISA, Margo Deiye, has argued that perpetuating a reliance on terrestrial mining “exacerbates existing inequalities and repeats the past mistakes of colonialism.” As part of the principles of the “common heritage of mankind,” the ISA is to ensure “equitable sharing of financial and other economic benefits derived from activities in the Area.” The intent is to provide developing states with a practical and realistic means of participating in seabed mining. Practically, this requires that developing states form partnerships to access the capital and technology necessary to conduct deep sea exploration. A comprehensive regulatory framework for seabed nodule collection would promote equitable distribution to the developing world of billions of dollars of natural resources in an unparalleled fashion.

Given the urgency with which the world needs to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, it is imperative for ISA member states to reach expeditiously a consensus regulatory framework on seabed minerals. The future of the legal framework for deep sea resource development will have far reaching global impacts. As a comprehensive international environmental framework, it will remove obstacles to accessing the required critical minerals and accelerate an effective clean energy transition that does not leave the developing world behind.