April 13, 2024

US ratification of ocean treaty will unlock deep-sea mining

Hundreds of former political and military leaders are calling on the US Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the impetus being the opening up of deep-sea mining to supply critical minerals needed for clean energy and technologies. military. UNCLOS, adopted in 1982, is the main international treaty governing state activities in the oceans, particularly in areas outside national jurisdiction that contain deep-sea minerals. Deep-sea resources include highly valuable minerals such as cobalt, nickel and rare earths. Recent technological advances and new companies make its extraction economically viable for the first time.


Sign up for PowerPlay, the Atlantic Council’s bimonthly newsletter that keeps you up to date on all facets of the energy transition.

The United States has not yet ratified UNCLOS due to historical opposition to its international regulation of seabed resources on the high seas. This lack of participation prevents US companies from directly participating in what could be a significant new industry. It has already led to the dominance of deep-sea exploration licenses by geopolitical competitors – China and Russia have jointly obtained nine licenses, including in areas historically claimed by the United States. By ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty, the United States can enhance critical security of mineral supplies, enter deepwater markets, and strengthen national security.

Governments and private industry have long worked to enable the extraction of deep-sea minerals for a range of resources, including cobalt crusts, hydrothermal sulfides and polymetallic nodules. Of these, polymetallic nodules are the most sought after – oceanic processes create these billiard ball-sized clusters of valuable metals. The ore contents in the nodules significantly exceed those in the earth, making their extraction efficient in terms of costs and emissions. The largest collection of nodules is located in an area called the Clarence Clipperton Zone (CCZ), which stretches across the Eastern Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico. Recent technological developments, especially in remotely operated vehicles and underwater vehicles, mean that deep sea resources are now potentially economical.

A reliable supply of essential minerals is increasingly important for the global economy and security. They are needed to meet clean energy needs, including electrical infrastructure, electric vehicles and renewable energy. Many advanced technologies for defense applications, especially electronics, require stable and increasing supplies of these rare minerals. China dominates the extraction and processing of most critical minerals, while the United States is a major importer of all the minerals that deep-sea mining can provide.

The governance of deep-sea mining depends on location. Under UNCLOS, seabed resources in exclusive economic zones are governed by the relevant nation. Norway recently became the first country to authorize the mining of such resources in its jurisdiction, but most of the resources are outside these zones. Resources in the remaining half of the ocean, called the High Seas, are governed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA). Although the United States played an active role in the UNCLOS negotiations and considers most of it to be customary international law, it has not ratified the treaty due to Senate opposition to the ISA’s role. Among other reasons, some senators have historically opposed the ISA’s international royalty mechanism and expressed concerns about precedents for other domains such as outer space. Without ratification, the United States cannot directly participate in the ISA governance process and U.S. companies cannot receive ISA mining licenses.

These criticisms are not unfounded. The ISA has existed for decades and still struggles to establish a governance framework. The small nation of Nauru is enforcing the issue legally and the ISA is close to finalizing its mining license system, without clear environmental protection. Global environmental groups have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until scientists can conduct more research into environmental impacts.

Still, one of the main objections (that an ISA-like royalty mechanism would be created for space exploration) to the ratification of the law of the sea is no longer valid. Over the past decade, the United States and many other countries have passed national legislation legalizing space mining without a space equivalent ISA. This approach has been legitimized by the US-led multilateral Artemis Accords, which now have thirty-five signatories, including all major space powers except China and Russia. The United States has secured a governance path for space resources that does not repeat the limitations of the ISA.

The letter calling for ratification of the Law of the Sea is the culmination of a growing bipartisan agreement around securing critical minerals in the face of an ongoing trade war with China. A group of bipartisan senators led by Senators Lisa Murkowski, Mazie Hirono and Tim Kaine introduced a resolution explicitly calling for ratification. Congress, both in informal letters and directed reports, is pushing for studies of deep-sea resources in U.S. waters and the ability to establish domestic processing infrastructures. In late 2023, the US State Department initiated an expanded claim to the continental shelf in the Arctic and Pacific Oceans, exercising jurisdiction over seabed mining for certain areas beyond its exclusive economic zone, a practice explicitly described in UNCLOS. However, China and Russia disputed this new claim, arguing in the ISA that the US cannot make the claim because it has not signed UNCLOS.

Ratification of UNCLOS would also strengthen US diplomatic power. The Houthi campaign in the Red Sea is disrupting 20% ​​of global maritime trade. Several undersea telecommunications cables in the Baltic Sea and Red Sea were severed last year, threatening global internet connectivity. For more than a decade, China has violated the principles of the LOS with its actions in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Ratification of UNCLOS would greatly strengthen US credibility in seeking international coalitions to withstand these challenges.

The future of deep-sea mining remains uncertain. The burgeoning industry faces technical, economic, regulatory, environmental and political challenges. Deep-sea abyssal plains contain unique biodiversity and are fragile, so mining activities must promptly incorporate best environmental practices to limit impacts and obtain a social license to operate. However, its potential benefits in meeting critical mineral supplies are substantial, as are the geopolitical challenges of establishing a leadership position. The urgency of securing critical mineral supplies means the time is right for the United States to reconsider its formal participation in UNCLOS.

Alex Gilbert is a doctoral student in space resources and a fellow at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines.

Morgan Bazilian is director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines.

Learn more about the Global Energy Center

O Global Energy Center develops and promotes pragmatic, nonpartisan policy solutions designed to advance global energy security, increase economic opportunity, and accelerate pathways to net-zero emissions.

Image: Most of the seafloor explored during Dive 07 of the 2019 Southeast US Deep Sea Exploration was covered by these manganese nodules, the subject of Deep Sea Ventures’ pilot testing nearly five decades ago.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *