The tiny Pacific nation of Nauru has created shockwaves by demanding that the rules for deep sea mining are agreed in the next two years.
Environmental groups warn that this will lead to a destructive rush on the mineral-rich seabed “nodules” that are sought by the mining companies.
But United Nations officials overseeing deep sea mining say no venture underwater can start for years.
It’s all about a letter that refers to the small print of an international treaty which has far-reaching implications.
Nauru, an island state in the Pacific Ocean, has called on the International Seabed Authority – a UN body that oversees the ocean floor – to speed up the regulations that will govern deep sea mining.
It’s activated a seemingly obscure sub-clause in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that allows countries to pull a ‘two-year trigger’ if they feel negotiations are going too slowly.
Nauru, which is partnered with a mining company, DeepGreen, argues that it has “a duty to the international community” to make this move to help achieve “regulatory certainty”.
It says that it stands to lose most from climate change so it wants to encourage access to the small rocks known as nodules that lie on the sea bed.
That’s because they’re rich in cobalt and other valuable metals that could be useful for batteries and renewable energy systems in the transition away from fossil fuels.
If the ISA does not manage to settle the rules for mining within two years, it may issue Nauru with provisional approval to go ahead – and no one knows what that could mean.
“This could really open the floodgates,” Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition told me.”If Nauru and DeepGreen get a provisional licence, any number of other companies or states could trigger the two-year rule too and then the whole process descends into utter chaos.
“Things have got a lot messier – it would not be a coordinated, well-planned process of negotiation to come up with regulations.”
Jessica Battle of WWF says a moratorium is essential to have a proper evaluation of the risks.
“We really need to put a brake on all this, in particular until there’s enough time for the science to help make an informed decision.”
She’s less worried about the prospects of actual mining starting in two years’ time – given that mining machines still aren’t ready – and more about what might happen in the rush to get the regulations finalised.
“What will prevail? The precautionary principle and care of the environment? Or business interests?”