International Seabed Mining Agency chief reprimanded by diplomats
Michael Lodge, the head of the UN-affiliated agency with jurisdiction over international ocean waters, has pushed diplomats to speed up the start of industrial-scale mining at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, officials said. Board members of the International Seabed Authority in interviews. .
The criticism of Mr Lodge, who has served as the authority’s chief secretary since 2016, comes as diplomats struggle to decide how to react when the authority receives a request for commercial seabed mining in the waters international markets, which is expected to happen later this month. year.
It would be the first such application by the 28-year-old authority, and the first time in history that an entity has sought permission to mine the ocean floor on an industrial scale. The authority is still drafting regulations that would govern the process.
Diplomats from Germany, Costa Rica and elsewhere say they believe Mr Lodge, who is meant to be a neutral facilitator, took a step forward by resisting efforts by some council members who could slow the process. approval of the first mining proposal.
Mr Lodge called the complaints “bold and unsubstantiated allegations without facts or evidence”, in a letter he sent to the German government on Friday.
The dispute is not just a bureaucratic squabble between diplomats; it’s an expression of larger tensions over who controls the agency and how quickly it should open up one of the world’s last untouched places to the metal mining industry.
The Metals Company, a publicly traded Canadian start-up that is sponsored by the peaceful nation of Nauru, wants to submerge a bulldozer-shaped unmanned vehicle about 2.5 miles from the ocean floor, where it would suck up rocks encrusted with cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese. These metals are key ingredients in electric vehicle batteries.
The Metals Company plans to begin mining 1.3 million tonnes of wet rock as early as next year, before increasing to 12 million tonnes per year, collecting a total of around 240 million tonnes over two decades and generating around $30 billion in revenue. . He has an agreement with a Japanese company that will, at least initially, extract metals from rocks.
Mr Lodge, a British lawyer, has in the past scoffed at concerns about potential environmental damage, saying ocean mining is no more damaging than the same activity carried out for centuries on land .
“They see an opportunity to wield power over governments and potentially stop new ocean activity before it starts,” Lodge said of environmental groups in a 2021 interview with the New. York Times. “Turtles with straws in their noses and dolphins are very, very easy to attract public sympathy.”
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More recently, Mr Lodge challenged some of the 36 members who sit on the board of the International Seabed Authority, several diplomats said in interviews, after asking how quickly the agency would finalize mining regulations. or suggested changes in how the agency would manage mining. apps.
“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 made up of member states and we are the leaders 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 are still participating in the debate.
Mr. Lodge has held various positions with the International Seabed Authority since 1996. He is currently serving his second four-year term as Secretary-General, which ends in 2024. He was elected to this position by the members of the Authority.
The German government expressed its concerns to Mr. Lodge in a letter last week.
“It is not the task of the secretariat to interfere in the decision-making,” Franziska Brantner, Germany’s minister for economic affairs and climate action, said in the March 16 letter to Mr. Lodge, including a copy was provided to The Times. “In the past, you have actively taken a stand against the positions and decision-making proposals of individual delegations.” Ms Brantner added that the German government “is seriously concerned about this approach”.
Mr Lodge replied to Ms Brantner the following day, saying his job was to ensure the authority adhered to the ‘legal framework’ of the law of the sea. He added that it was wrong to suggest he s was opposed to positions taken by individual nation delegations. And he reminded the German delegation to respect him and his staff and “not to seek to influence them in carrying out their responsibilities”.
In a statement to The Times, Mr Lodge’s office added that he places “great importance on the preservation and protection of the marine environment” and that he works “to ensure that the processes of taking decisions regarding economic activity in the deep seabed are based on the best available scientific knowledge.
But a growing number of countries – including Germany, Costa Rica, Chile, New Zealand, Spain, the Netherlands, France and several Pacific island nations – have said in recent months that they did not believe enough data had yet been collected to assess the impact mining would have on aquatic life. As a result, they called for a “precautionary pause” or a formal moratorium on all mining in international waters.
The debate has intensified over the past year as the Metals Company has made it clear that it intends to seek approval this year to begin mining as soon as 2024.
Nauru, the tiny Pacific nation that sponsors the Metals Company, invoked a legal provision in 2021 that it says obliges the International Seabed Authority to accept an application for commercial mining by July. The authority, according to Nauru and the Metals Company, would then be obliged to examine the request and authorize the start of the exploitation, even if the environmental rules had not been finalized.
“The council” will still need to consider and provisionally approve “a work plan for exploitation”, Nauru wrote in a memo to authorities this month.
The Metals Company lined up an old offshore oil drilling ship to serve as a platform to handle ocean mining, and it built an underwater collection vehicle, which it tested at the end of last year, which can lift 3,200 tons of polymetallic rock from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
The Metals Company indeed controls three of the 30 “exploratory” contracts that the seabed authority has approved, each of which can go into “exploitation” mode, ie industrial mining. China controls five of these contracts – more than any other country – with others sponsored by Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, India, Japan, Korea, Poland, Russia , Singapore and several other island nations. But the Metals Company was by far the most aggressive in its decision to start mining.
Some members of the authority argue that the agency is not bound to approve an application from the Metals Company and Nauru until the regulations are complete.
“There can be no exploitation of the seabed without agreeing on a set of rules and regulations guaranteeing high environmental standards and sound scientific knowledge,” said Hugo Verbist, the Belgian representative on the board of the Institute, on Thursday. seabed authority. discuss how to move forward.
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 Company executive who helped the company choose one of the most valuable places in the Pacific to begin his mining efforts. A lawyer for Mr Lodge said no rules were broken with the data sharing.
At the March 8 meeting where diplomats gathered virtually to discuss how to handle a mining application if received this year, some delegates suggested revisions to the permitting process that would strengthen the capacity of the board to block the start of mining. Mr. Lodge cautioned delegates not to alter established procedures.
Mr. Lodge said he had no intention of challenging any delegation’s proposals. But his words were interpreted that way by a number of nations, including Germany, France and Costa Rica.
“It is crucial that the authority’s secretariat fully respects its duty of neutrality,” said Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, France’s ambassador for the oceans, in a statement to The Times when asked about Mr. Lodge’s remarks.
The Metals Company, in a three-page statement to The Times, said it agreed with Mr Lodge. “The Secretary General works to ensure that the ISA and its member states meet their legal obligations,” the society said.