By Matteo Civillini 

Dozens of mining industry representatives joined government negotiating teams at high-stakes United Nations talks charting the future of controversial deep-sea mining last month.

Climate Home News identified at least 33 executives and employees of companies directly involved in the nascent deep-sea mining industry on the list of state delegations at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) annual meeting.

The little-known UN agency is tasked with setting the rules for the extraction of minerals found on the vast ocean floor in international waters. No such activity is currently taking place at commercial level yet.

But this year’s summit came at a pivotal moment, as any member state could now theoretically apply for a mining contract on behalf of a company. That is after a deadline to establish mining rules triggered by the island-nation of Nauru lapsed earlier in July.

The meeting pitted a handful of countries pushing for the ISA to introduce regulations and issue permits against a growing coalition calling for a halt to operations until the full environmental impacts are known.

Mining companies claim that minerals like nickel and cobalt extracted from polymetallic nodules lying on the seabed are needed in batteries and will help speed up the energy transition. An area of the Pacific Ocean floor known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which is under the control of the ISA, contains a high concentration of the golf ball-sized nodules.

Environmental campaigners and several governments dispute the industry’s claims, saying that more mining isn’t necessary and deep sea operations will damage ecosystems we still know little about. More than 750 marine scientists signed an open letter calling for a ban on the practice until robust scientific evidence can back it up.

Unfettered access

Countries bring delegations to the meeting mostly made up of government officials, but also including scientists, corporate lobbyists and, to a lesser extent, NGO representatives.

Unlike non-governmental agencies that can apply for observer status, private companies do not have an official way to participate at the ISA talks. But industry representatives routinely attend the meetings, usually by embedding in the delegations of the countries sponsoring their mining licenses.

A lead negotiator told Climate Home News that the number of industry representatives at the talks last July was similar to that seen in previous years but, for the first time, they took part in the small-room negotiations.

“Each country has the right to include in its delegation whoever it chooses,” they added. “But it is very telling when a delegation brings a contractor into the close negotiations limited to member states. It shows who is influencing its decisions.”

Bobbi-Jo Dubosh from The Ocean Foundation said that the access given to mining industry representatives should be contrasted with restrictions being imposed on civil society and media.

“Miners may attend the ISA as part of state delegations, which allows them into every room, no matter how small,” she added. “In contrast, civil society sits outside of closed-door meetings, and – depending on the week – media aren’t even allowed on premises at the ISA”.

The ISA has not replied to questions sent by Climate Home News at the time of publication.

Nauru, China, Japan, Jamaica, Belgium, the UK, Netherlands, the Cook Islands and Singapore all brought mining executives and consultants to the talks in Kingston, Jamaica, last month, according to an analysis by Climate Home News.

All these countries except the Netherlands directly sponsor companies that are looking into ways to collect precious metals from the ocean floor.

The Metals Company contingent

Among the most high-profile industry players in Kingston was Gerard Barron, the outspoken CEO of The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian deep-sea mining startup that is at the forefront of efforts to mine the ocean.

Barron joined the talks as a representative of Nauru, the Pacific island nation sponsoring one of his company’s licenses. Nauru heaped pressure on the ISA in 2021 when it triggered an obscure mechanism that gave the UN agency two years to write up regulations for mining.

The move fuelled TMC’s hopes for an accelerated start to commercial mining. But as the deadline passed, ISA members decided to delay the adoption of regulations until 2025 – to the disappointment of Barron and Nauru’s government officials.

Barron is no stranger to ISA talks. In 2019 he sparked controversy when he addressed other negotiators from the seat of the Nauruan delegation during a plenary session, urging regulations to be completed.

Another TMC executive and two veteran mining consultants joined Barron on the list of Nauru representatives this year.

Nathan Eastwood is an Australia-based mining industry lawyer who recently left a job at the ISA. As the New York Times revealed, in 2021 he took a sabbatical from his law firm to work as a legal officer for the UN agency and help it draft the mining regulations. Eastwood is now an advisor to TMC’s Nauruan subsidiary.

He followed in the footsteps of another Nauru representative, Chris Brown. Before becoming an advisor to Nauru, Brown had spent several years helping the ISA set its mining rules as an employee and consultant at the UN body.

Agenda fight

During the week-long gathering of the ISA assembly members, Nauru opposed a motion proposed by a group of countries led by Chile, Costa Rica and France to officially discuss a moratorium for the first time. The standoff prevented the approval of an agenda of the talks until the last day when the two sides reached a compromise. A discussion on a halt to deep sea mining will be put on the provisional agenda next year.

In blocking the motion, the island nation was flanked initially by Mexico, but most persistently by China.

Unlike most other countries, China did not spell out on the participants’ list the affiliation of its delegation members. But Climate Home News has identified at least two representatives of Chinese state-owned companies that are currently exploring the ocean seabed for metal extraction.

China is in favour of deep-sea mining and is doubling down on efforts to be at the forefront of the nascent sector. At this year’s meeting, China opposed the inclusion of a moratorium debate on the agenda most vehemently, arguing it was “not suitable” for discussion. Its lead negotiator also said the ISA should be actively pushing ahead with its work to finalise mining rules.

Japan arrived in Kingston with the largest group of industry advisers among its ranks. Seven representatives for each of the country’s two state-backed deep-sea mining players joined the delegation. Japan wants to extract cobalt and other metals needed for the production of electric vehicles from the Pacific Ocean seabed in a bid to reduce its reliance on China for the minerals.

Japan was hoping the ISA regulations would be in place by this July, but it also reiterated its commitment “to protecting the marine environment and biodiversity”.

European miners represented

The host country for the talks, Jamaica, also included a number of deep-sea mining executives in its large delegation. These included Romeo Spinelli and Peter Jantzen, directors of Blue Minerals Jamaica, which in December 2020 became the latest company to obtain an exploration licence from the ISA. Before launching the Jamaican ventures, Spinelli and Jantzen had worked for various oil and gas companies.

According to research by the Environmental Justice Foundation, Blue Minerals is a subsidiary of Allseas, a Swiss group specialised in laying underwater oil and gas pipelines. Allseas is very active in deep-sea mining, also as an investor and operating partner of The Metals Company. The Swiss firm is developing a system to collect the polymetallic nodules from the seabed and transport them onto a vessel. An Allseas engineer was part of the Jamaican delegation at the talks, alongside the Blue Minerals representatives.

Two of Allseas’ European rivals also sent representatives to Kingston joining the delegations of Belgium and the Netherlands respectively.

Among the advisors to the Belgian team was Kris Van Nijen, managing director of Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), which holds an ISA permit and has been testing a series of technologies, including underwater robots, to extract minerals from the ocean floor.

Even though it did not join the call for a moratorium directly, Belgium showed support for a discussion of the proposal at ISA meetings. It also said there should be no seabed mining without agreeing on a set of rules that ensure high environmental standards and sound scientific knowledge.

The Dutch delegation included two employees of Royal IHC, a Dutch firm developing systems to harvest metals from the deep-sea sustainably as part of a programme subsidised by the European Union.

The United Kingdom signed up as advisors to its negotiating team two representatives of UK Seabed Resources, a deep-sea mining company sponsored by the British government. The company was acquired last March by Norway’s Loke Marine Minerals from the US weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin. The Norwegian company, which is backed by oil and gas investors, hopes to start mining activities in 2030.

Louisa Casson from Greenpeace said the ISA has long been “a fortress for industry interests, with the private companies based in the Global North lobbying hard for deals that would maximise their profit”.

But she added many more people are now voicing their concerns about deep sea mining and negotiations “need to catch up” with the outside world.