As demand for fossil fuels levels off, renewable energy sources will account for an increasing percentage of the total demand for the minerals involved in their formation. Within the next two decades, the IEA predicts that renewable energy technologies will account for over 40 percent of demand for copper, 60 to 70 percent for cobalt and nickel, and 90 percent for lithium.
To avoid the huge social and environmental costs of land-based mining, nations – including China and the United States – are turning to the seabed to secure the materials for their renewable energy needs through a process called deep-sea mining.
What is deep sea mining?
Deep sea mining (DSM) involves the extraction of mineral deposits from nodules that permeate the sea floor, typically more than 600 feet below sea level. The most economically viable nodules lie partially beneath sediments in the north-central Pacific, the southeast Pacific, and the northern Indian Ocean. These valuable nodules contain cobalt, copper, nickel, and other minerals needed to manufacture green technologies like electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind turbines.
However, regulatory oversight of this practice is a major source of geopolitical tensions. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requires states to regulate deep-sea mining on the seabed within their national jurisdiction.
But around 60 percent of the ocean floor lies outside the jurisdiction of individual states. In these waters, deep-sea prospecting (the search for minerals and metals), exploration (assessing location, size and quantity), and exploitation (the extraction and supply of economic quantities of minerals and metals) are regulated by UNCLOS. the International Seabed Authority (ISA) was founded.
Some states, including world powers, have different, competing, or conflicting interpretations of UNCLOS, or the national law of the sea. Disagreements include maritime boundaries, as well as the right of nations to do or prohibit within and outside those boundaries.
The ISA has attempted to resolve DSM issues with the mining code. But the code is incomplete as only the exploration regulations are being finalized and the exploitation laws are still being reviewed. In 2021, Nauru — a central Pacific island nation — announced its intention to transition from exploration to exploitation, making the ISA even more urgent to finalize regulations.
The rise of geopolitical competition
The demand for the exploitation of minerals on the seabed is increasing. But hasty development of a DSM regulatory framework could increase geopolitical competition and environmental degradation.
China, in particular, has expressed its desire to shape international norms in the maritime sphere, as evidenced by Beijing’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea and DSM. Already dominating terrestrial mining, China is now leading the race to the ocean floor by building superior capabilities and influencing the regulatory environment. China currently holds five of the 30 deep-sea mining contracts issued by the ISA – more than any other country.
Under the ISA, Member States must ensure that actions taken under an exploration license comply with UNCLOS law. And while China’s DSM law details the environmental obligations under UNCLOS, the requirements are vague, resulting in lax regulation. As such, China can influence operational practices and environmental norms.
China is also a leader in R&D and has unrivaled mineral processing capabilities. DSM research is expensive and companies require large amounts of capital to operate. But the Chinese government has made funding for deep-sea mining research a national security and economic priority. Chinese state-owned companies are given preferential access to state-owned bank loans at lower interest rates, giving them an advantage over companies operating in the open market.
Meanwhile, the United States is not a member state of UNCLOS or ISA, having signed but not ratified the UNCLOS Treaty. This leaves the United States with limited ability to shape the regulatory framework for DSM. UNCLOS also requires DSM companies to be resident in a member state, meaning US companies cannot access ISA deep-sea mining contracts.
To circumvent the problem, the United States passed its own seabed mining law that allows NOAA to issue exploration licenses for international DSM. However, despite obtaining licenses, US companies like Lockheed Martin are reluctant to start operating DSM, citing a lack of international recognition.
By creating parallel regulations rather than ratifying UNCLOS, the United States risks weakening the incentive to comply with international law – and setting a dangerous precedent that could empower malicious actors. The United States also relies on Chinese terrestrial mining for critical minerals. Without international recognition of DSM’s activities, US companies will continue to fall behind, making it unlikely that the United States will shift its dependence on China.
Improving global governance for risk management
The Biden-Harris National Security Strategy emphasizes identifying collaborative opportunities and working with U.S. allies and partners to “secure access to critical mineral supply chains” as the United States works to mitigate climate change and strengthen energy security.
At COP27, the United States can advance these goals by highlighting the link between responsibly sourcing critical minerals, mitigating climate change, and the need for internationally recognized regulation of DSM use. The conference provides an opportunity to prioritize consensus building on updated international DSM regulation that can reduce geopolitical tensions on critical climate and security issues.
Although the United States has not ratified UNCLOS, it can encourage and advise members – such as the EU, Canada and the UK – who will vote on the ISA regulation. Policymakers can also prioritize strengthening and building new working relationships with governments at COP27, as efforts to protect the environment and mitigate climate change require global collaboration that goes beyond traditional allies and partners.
The United States can also talk to partners about adopting a trade policy that promotes sustainable DSM practices. For example, policymakers could enact regulations restricting the import of products that use deep-sea materials, with an exemption for companies that meet environmental and enforcement standards. Regulations like these will be particularly effective in motivating companies to maintain responsible exploration and exploitation as they prepare for commercialization, with the United States being a major target market. And as competition between the US and China intensifies, the two nations should prioritize working together on the common threat of climate change.
Scientists still don’t know to what extent DSM affects the environment. But poorly managed deep-sea exploration and extraction could affect biodiversity, water quality and fish stocks, and alter ocean currents. The United States should use its bilateral relationships and leadership in multinational organizations such as the United Nations to promote scientific exploration and biodiversity conservation as guiding principles of DSM regulation. The United States can make efforts to combine climate action and sustainable extraction — as well as improve global governance of deep-sea mining in multilateral fora — to mitigate environmental degradation and incentivize cooperation among nations trying to repair critical mineral supply chains to back up.
Jocelyn Trainer is a Researcher and Expert on the Energy, Economic and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.