Seabed mining is a new frontier for exploiting resources buried in the deep ocean and continental shelves. The first seabed mining was carried out in the year 1978 in the Pacific Ocean, some 1600 km south-east of Hawaii and was engineered by Ocean Management Inc (OMI) consortium. It was a 50 million dollars venture and 1000 tonnes of manganese nodules were netted out. OMI constitutes of agencies from West Germany, Japan, Canada and the US. While it is true that seabed mining will help refuel industrial growth, it cannot be denied that explorations unplug serious environmental concerns.
Three minerals that hold possibilities of exploitation are sea-floor sulphides, cobalt rich crusts and manganese – all of which have significant value in military application. Manganese nodules – small, dark, and round, contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt, and other minerals – are found along the floor of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The nodules were first discovered on the famous oceanographic Challenger Expedition of the 1870s. Seabed mining sites are usually located around large areas of polymetallic nodules or active and extinct hydrothermal vents at about 1,400 – 3,700 m below the ocean’s surface. Deposits are mined using either hydraulic pumps or bucket systems installed in remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), submersibles that bring the ore to the surface to be processed. Though ocean mining has generated a great deal of interest, several factors have served as obstacles, including the difficult ocean terrain, high costs and political and international difficulties relating to its legality. Similar problems associated with oil and gas exploration have caused international and national debate. While no one knows the exact extent of the oil and gas deposits in the ocean, oceanographers have made important discoveries about these potential reserves.
To oversee different perspectives and regulate procedures for prospecting, explorations and exploitation of marine minerals an autonomous organisation called the International Seabed Authority was established in 1982 under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Authority came into existence in November 1994 but was operational in full force only in June 1996 with its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica. UNCLOS is responsible for administering the various prospecting, exploitation or exploration activities of the states party to the Convention beyond the area of their national jurisdiction – specifically to regulate and administer the resources of the area that are under no man’s land. Under the general legal framework of UNCLOS, a ‘mining code’ has been issued which is a comprehensive set of rules, regulations and procedures issued by the International Seabed Authority to control and organise the marine minerals and resources in the seabed and subsoil beyond national jurisdiction.
The eight contractors envisaged in the Law of the Sea Convention, overseen by the Authority, that had applied for authorisation for exploration of specific seabed areas are Yuzhmorgeologya (Russian Federation); Interoceanmetal Joint Organisation (IOM) (Bulgaria, Cuba, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Russian Federation); the Government of the Republic of Korea; China Ocean Minerals Research and Development Association (COMRA) (China); Deep Ocean Resources Development Company (DORD) (Japan); Institut français de recherche pour l’exploitation de la mer (IFREMER) (France); the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources of Germany; and the Government of India.
It is however interesting to note that India was the first country in the world to get pioneer investor status. The Government of India registered as a contractor under the UNCLOS in August 1987 – the contract being signed in March 2002, gave India exclusive rights to explore an initial area of up to 150,000 km2 in the Indian Ocean.
In a recent development China signed an agreement with the International Seabed Authority, attaining exclusive rights to explore a 10,000 km2 international seabed for developing polymetallic sulphide in the southwest Indian Ocean within the next 15 years. The move raised concerns in India when it was first announced in August 2011. The Indian Directorate of Naval Intelligence (DNI) reportedly expressed its reservations to the Indian Government about the mining programme which it believed could provide an excuse for China to operate its warships in these oceans, besides legitimately compiling large oceanographic and the hydrological data pertaining to the subcontinent’s continental shelves.
Seabed mining however requires stringent laws and regulations without which the long term security and safety of oceans is jeopardised. Even the International Seabed Authority remains undefined and controversial for various political issues. There is a growing fear in developing regions that technologically advanced and economically stable countries would lead exploitation activities, restraining their rights over the ocean resources. Issues like imposition of permit requirements, fees and taxation on seabed mining, use of collected money for wealth redistribution, mandatory technology transfer are various shortcomings that need to be addressed urgently.