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More countries call for a moratorium on seabed mining

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week delegates from more than 150 countries are meeting in Jamaica - on the agenda, deciding whether to allow commercial mining of the ocean floor. Rocks on the seabed could provide materials to help fight climate change. Now, this idea is controversial, and reporter Daniel Ackerman is following the debate. Hey, Daniel.

DANIEL ACKERMAN: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, so rocks on the seabed that are useful against climate change. Where are they? And explain.

ACKERMAN: Yeah. So there are rock formations all over the ocean, but one area of interest to the mining industry is in the Eastern Pacific. That is where billions of potato-shaped rocks called polymetallic nodules are scattered across the seabed. And these nodules are rich in the kinds of minerals used in most electric vehicle batteries today - so minerals like nickel and cobalt. And advocates for seabed mining say that if we could get these minerals from the middle of the ocean, that would be less destructive than mining on land.

KELLY: OK. Now, this has not actually been done, at least not commercially yet. Explain the controversy. What are the concerns at play here?

ACKERMAN: Yeah. So there are concerns about how this mining would impact the health of the ocean. So the technology that's being tested today is essentially a giant vacuum cleaner, like, the size of a small house. And it would crawl back and forth along the seabed, sucking up those nodules. Marine biologists who oppose seabed mining say that this process would damage life on the seabed, and it would also cause noise and light pollution that could impact sea life well beyond a mine site itself.

KELLY: Now, who gets to decide? Who governs seabed mining?

ACKERMAN: Well, in international waters, that decision is made by the International Seabed Authority. That's a group affiliated with the United Nations. It's made up of 168 member countries. And so they're meeting in Jamaica right now in part to discuss progress on the so-called mining code. So this mining code is a rulebook that any seabed mining operation would have to follow. So that includes measures to limit environmental damage and plans to tax mining companies. The Seabed Authority has been working on this rulebook for more than a decade now, and that discussion continues this week.

KELLY: More than a decade, you said. That's not exactly - I'm not sensing urgency here. Why is this taking so long?

ACKERMAN: Yeah, well, the mining rulebook is a big, complicated document. It is hundreds of pages long, and every word of it requires consensus from all the member countries. So there's just a lot to hash out.

KELLY: So is the goal to finalize the rulebook at this week's meeting?

ACKERMAN: Well, not quite. Every delegate that I've spoken to says there's just too much that is still unresolved. So these negotiations are going to stretch on perhaps another year or more. And that's a problem because the island nation of Nauru announced back in 2021 that it would apply for a mining licence in two years' time. So checking my watch here, Mary Louise, those two years have elapsed. Nauru has a corporate partner on this mining project called The Metals Company, and I asked CEO Gerard Barron if they still plan to apply to mine.

GERARD BARRON: That's our legal right. You know, what we said is that we would have an application ready by the end of this year. We're working hard on finalizing that application as we speak.

ACKERMAN: And if they do submit that application before there are mining regulations, international law is not entirely clear on how to proceed.

KELLY: But we just heard him say, that's our legal right. How do the other members of this authority, the Seabed Authority, see it?

ACKERMAN: Well, about two dozen member states have called for some form of a moratorium to block any seabed mining, at least until regulations are complete. So we're going to find out this week if that group of countries can sway the rest of the authority to their position. And, you know, this is an unprecedented moment in the history of seabed mining. The world has to decide whether and how to move forward with a brand-new extractive industry.

KELLY: A lot to keep our eye on as this meeting gets underway in Jamaica. Daniel Ackerman, thank you.

ACKERMAN: Thank you.

KELLY: Daniel Ackerman reports on climate change and mining.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "STILL TRILL (FEAT. METHOD MAN AND GRAFH)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Daniel Ackerman
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