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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Leader of international seabed mining agency admonished by diplomats

Polymetallic nodules collected by the Metals Company from the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean, displayed in a ship in San Diego, Calif., on June 8, 2021.

By Eric Lipton

Michael Lodge, the head of the United Nations-affiliated agency with jurisdiction over international ocean waters, has pushed diplomats to accelerate the start of industrial-scale mining at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, members of the International Seabed Authority’s governing council said in interviews.

The criticism of Lodge, who has served as secretary-general of the authority since 2016, comes as the diplomats struggle to decide how to respond when the authority receives an application for commercial seabed mining in international waters, which is expected to happen later this year.

It would be the first such request fielded by the 28-year-old authority, and the first time in history that an entity sought permission to mine the bottom of an ocean at an industrial scale. The authority is still writing regulations that would govern the process.

Diplomats from Germany, Costa Rica and elsewhere say that they believe Lodge, who is supposed to be a neutral facilitator, has stepped out of line by resisting efforts by some council members that could slow approval of the first mining proposal.

Lodge called the complaints “a bold and unsubstantiated allegation, without facts or evidence,” in a letter he sent on Friday to the German government.

The dispute is not simply a bureaucratic squabble among diplomats; it is an expression of larger tensions over who controls the agency and how quickly it should open one of the last remaining untouched spots in the world to the metals extraction industry.

The Metals Co., a publicly traded Canadian startup that is being sponsored by the Pacific nation of Nauru, wants to submerge an unmanned, bulldozer-shaped vehicle approximately 2.5 miles to the ocean floor, where it would suck up rocks embedded with cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese. Those metals are key ingredients in electric vehicle batteries.

The Metals Co. expects to extract 1.3 million tons of the wet rocks starting as soon as next year, before expanding to 12 million tons a year, collecting a total of about 240 million tons over two decades and generating an estimated $30 billion in earnings. It has an agreement with a Japanese company that will, at least initially, extract the metals from the rocks.

Lodge, a British lawyer, has in the past mocked concerns about potential environmental harm, arguing that ocean mining is no more damaging than the same activity performed for centuries on land.

“They see an opportunity to exert power over governments and potentially shut down a new ocean activity before it begins,” Lodge said about environmental groups during a 2021 interview with The New York Times. “Turtles with straws up their noses and dolphins are very, very easy to get public sympathy.”

More recently, Lodge has challenged some of the 36 members who serve on the International Seabed Authority’s governing council, several diplomats said in interviews, after they questioned how quickly the agency would finalize mining regulations or suggested changes in how the agency would handle mining applications.

“This goes beyond what should be a decision of the secretariat,” Gina Guillén Grillo, Costa Rica’s representative to the seabed authority, said during a March 8 meeting. “The council is formed from member states, and we are the ones in charge and the secretary-general has administrative functions.”

The council represents 167 nations that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as observer nations like the United States that have not ratified the law but still participate in the debate.

Lodge has held a variety of posts at the International Seabed Authority since 1996. He is serving his second four-year secretary-general term, which ends in 2024. He was elected to the post by the members of the authority.

In a statement to the Times, Lodge’s office said that he places “high importance on the preservation and protection of the marine environment,” and that he is working “to ensure that decision making processes around economic activity in the deep seabed is based on best available scientific knowledge.”

But a growing number of nations — including Germany, Costa Rica, Chile, New Zealand, Spain, the Netherlands, France and several Pacific Island nations — have said in recent months that they do not believe enough data has yet been assembled to evaluate the impact mining would have on aquatic life. As a result, they have called for a “precautionary pause” or a formal moratorium on any mining in international waters.

The debate has intensified over the last year because the Metals Co. has made clear that it intends to request approval this year to start mining as soon as 2024.

Nauru, the tiny Pacific nation that is sponsoring the Metals Co., invoked a legal provision in 2021 that it believes requires the International Seabed Authority to accept a commercial mining application by this July. The authority, according to Nauru and the Metals Co., would then be obligated to review the application and allow mining to start, even if the environmental rules had not been finalized.

“The council ‘shall nonetheless consider and provisionally approve’ a plan of work for exploitation,” Nauru wrote in a memo to the authority this month.

The Metals Co. has lined up a former offshore oil-drilling ship to serve as the platform to manage the ocean mining, and it has built an underwater collector vehicle, which it tested late last year, that can lift 3,200 tons of polymetallic rocks from the Pacific Ocean floor.

The Metals Co. effectively controls three of 30 “exploratory” contracts the seabed authority has approved, any one of which can be shifted to “exploitation” mode, which means industrial mining. China controls five of those contracts — more than any other nation — with others sponsored by Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, India, Japan, Korea, Poland, Russia, Singapore and several other island nations. But the Metals Co. has been the most aggressive by far in moving to begin mining.

Some members of the authority maintain that the agency is under no obligation to approve an application from the Metals Co. and Nauru until the regulations are complete.

“There can be no exploitation of the deep seabed without agreeing on a set of rules and regulations that ensure high environmental standards and a sound scientific knowledge,” Hugo Verbist, the Belgian representative on the seabed authority’s council, said on Thursday as the authority began debating how to move ahead.

The Times reported last year that, according to documents dating back more than a decade, the International Seabed Authority shared internal data with a Metals Co. executive that helped the company pick one of the most valuable locations in the Pacific to start its mining efforts. A lawyer for Lodge said no rules were broken with any data sharing.

At the March 8 meeting where diplomats assembled virtually to discuss how to handle a mining application if it is received this year, some delegates suggested revisions to the permitting process that would strengthen the council’s ability to block the start of mining. Lodge warned the delegates not to change established procedures.

“It would be dangerous to disturb this balance,” Lodge said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “We should let the system work as it is intended to do.”

Lodge said he did not intend to challenge any delegation’s proposals. But his remarks were interpreted that way by a number of nations, including Germany, France and Costa Rica.

“It is crucial that the secretariat of the authority respect fully its duty of neutrality,” Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, the French ambassador for oceans, said in a statement to the Times when asked about Lodge’s remarks.

The Metals Co., in a three-page statement to the Times, said it agreed with Lodge. “The secretary general is working to ensure the I.S.A. and its member states comply with their legal obligations,” the company said.

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