Deep sea mining for rare earth minerals. Concept Mining Industry, Deep Sea Operations, Rare Earth Minerals, Environment Impact, Future Technology
π Industry π Planet π Geopolitics
How interest in the deep sea is resurfacing

Seabed mining: a new geopolitical divide?

Emmanuel Hache, Assistant and Economist-Prospector at IFP Énergies nouvelles and Research Director at IRIS, Émilie Normand, Economist Engineer, Head of Research at IFP Énergies nouvelles and Candice Roche, Research Fellow in Geopolitics of Metals and Ecological Transition at IFPEN
On July 3rd, 2024 |
8 min reading time
Emmanuel Hache
Emmanuel Hache
Assistant and Economist-Prospector at IFP Énergies nouvelles and Research Director at IRIS
Emilie Normand
Émilie Normand
Economist Engineer, Head of Research at IFP Énergies nouvelles
Candice Roche
Candice Roche
Research Fellow in Geopolitics of Metals and Ecological Transition at IFPEN
Key takeaways
  • As metals are at the core of national concerns, new mineral deposits in the deep sea tend to catch the attention of a growing number of actors.
  • Coastal states have rights over resources located in their exclusive economic zones; beyond that, the sea is a common zone where the status of mining remains to be defined.
  • Yet it is a zone rich in resources, particularly sulphide clusters, cobalt-rich crusts and polymetallic nodules.
  • The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is negotiating a regulatory framework for the exploitation of deep-sea resources.
  • These negotiations are giving rise to a new geopolitical sphere where traditional states alliances are questioned, and companies play an increasingly influential role.

In addi­tion to the envi­ron­men­tal inse­cu­ri­ty caused by the cli­mate cri­sis and the ener­gy inse­cu­ri­ty caused by the war in Ukraine, there is a loom­ing min­er­al inse­cu­ri­ty that could impede Europe’s ener­gy and dig­i­tal tran­si­tions. Cobalt, cop­per, lithi­um, nick­el, rare earths, and oth­er crit­i­cal min­er­als are essen­tial for all low-car­bon tech­nolo­gies such as solar pan­els, wind tur­bines, bat­ter­ies for elec­tric vehi­cles or hydro­gen fuel cells. Hence, accord­ing to pro­jec­tions by the Inter­na­tion­al Ener­gy Agency (IEA)1, con­sump­tion of these met­als is expect­ed to rise sharply by 2040. The met­als are now vital to all eco­nom­ic sec­tors, and are cen­tral to gov­ern­ment con­cerns, dri­ven by the glob­al push to decar­bonize, sys­temic rival­ries between pow­ers and a grow­ing aware­ness of the planet’s lim­its2. In this con­text, marine min­er­al deposits are draw­ing the atten­tion of var­i­ous states and com­pa­nies. Accord­ing to Arti­cle 76 of the 1982 Unit­ed Nations Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea, coastal states have sov­er­eign rights over resources with­in 200 miles of their shores. Beyond this lim­it, this is “the Area” where the sea and seabed belong to no-one despite the abun­dance of resources.

These deposits come in three forms: sul­phide clus­ters, cobalt crusts and poly­metal­lic nod­ules. Poly­metal­lic nod­ules are small peb­bles lying on the seabed which are par­tic­u­lar­ly sought after for their high nick­el, cobalt, cop­per and man­ganese con­tent. The Clar­i­on-Clip­per­ton Zone is an area of par­tic­u­lar inter­est due to its high con­cen­tra­tion of nod­ules; the zone is in the mid­dle of the Pacif­ic Ocean and cov­ers approx­i­mate­ly 4.5 mil­lion km² (the size of the Euro­pean Union (EU)) (Fig­ure 1). With the Inter­na­tion­al Seabed Author­i­ty (ISA) due to meet on 15 July3, it is time­ly to exam­ine the issue of seabed mining.

Fig­ure 1: Map of the three main types of deep-sea min­er­als deposits4

Under­wa­ter explo­ration cam­paigns are cur­rent­ly under­way, but no com­mer­cial extrac­tion is on the agen­da. Deep-sea min­ing faces a sev­er­al major obstacles:

  • It is tech­ni­cal­ly dif­fi­cult and cost­ly (1 to 5 mil­lion dol­lars for the extrac­tion vehi­cles alone), not to men­tion the high and uncer­tain costs of oper­at­ing and restor­ing the abyss;
  • It could have sig­nif­i­cant eco­log­i­cal impacts, includ­ing loss of bio­di­ver­si­ty, major dis­rup­tion of ecosys­tems and pol­lu­tion, which are dif­fi­cult to mea­sure at present;
  • Most of the min­ing poten­tial lies beyond the lim­its of nation­al juris­dic­tions, in what the Unit­ed Nations Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea5 (UNCLOS) calls “the Area”, and states are strug­gling to agree on a uni­fied reg­u­la­to­ry framework.

The Area is admin­is­tered by the Inter­na­tion­al Seabed Author­i­ty (ISA)6, a UN enti­ty defined by UNCLOS and cre­at­ed by the 1994 Agree­ment. ISA has the exclu­sive man­date to orga­nize and con­trol activ­i­ties in the Area for the ben­e­fit of mankind. It is there­fore up to ISA to set a frame­work for the explo­ration and exploita­tion of deep-sea min­er­al resources. Since 2014, the organ­i­sa­tion has been lead­ing nego­ti­a­tions to devel­op an inter­na­tion­al min­ing code. How­ev­er, the task has proven dif­fi­cult: while the Repub­lic of Nau­ru has been push­ing the UN body since 2021, and ISA Coun­cil and Gen­er­al Assem­bly are sched­uled to meet this sum­mer, they have already announced that final­is­ing such a reg­u­la­tion would not be pos­si­ble before 20257. The draft­ing of this min­ing code thus marks a renew­al of inter-state rela­tions and brings forth  a new geopo­lit­i­cal field, with its own issues, insti­tu­tions and fault lines.

The seabed at the crossroads of traditional geopolitics

The issues sur­round­ing the exploita­tion of deep-sea min­ing resources are at the cross­roads of sev­er­al tra­di­tion­al geopo­lit­i­cal fields:

  • High Seas Geopol­i­tics: The area is the focus of dis­cus­sions about free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion, def­i­n­i­tion of exclu­sive eco­nom­ic zones, the shar­ing of fish­ery resources, and strate­gic defence, sur­veil­lance and inter­ven­tion posi­tions. The high seas are a bat­tle­ground for the strate­gic inter­ests8 of states, par­tic­u­lar­ly coastal ones, as they try to delin­eate the perime­ter of this “Area” of uncer­tain­ty. Under­wa­ter resources are seen as a new front for assert­ing sovereignty.
  • Min­ing Geopol­i­tics: Most major min­ing coun­tries have a clear-cut opin­ion on deep-sea min­ing. Pro­po­nents argue that it reduces the envi­ron­men­tal impact of land-based extrac­tion and pre­vents future sup­ply dis­rup­tions. Com­pe­ti­tion from these min­er­al resources is tak­en seri­ous­ly by the tra­di­tion­al min­ing coun­tries. Some try to lim­it the scope by advo­cat­ing a mora­to­ri­um, as Chile does, or attempt to become min­ing super­pow­ers, like Chi­na. Sim­i­lar­ly, poten­tial deposits are already includ­ed in the sup­ply secu­ri­ty poli­cies of coun­tries, as Japan.
  • Cli­mate Geopol­i­tics: Ocean has recent­ly gained promi­nence as a dis­tinct sub­ject, dealt with in ded­i­cat­ed are­nas9 and at the core of ambi­tious texts such as the recent­ly adopt­ed High Seas Treaty10. Through this lens, under­wa­ter resources face the same ten­sion as cli­mate nego­ti­a­tions in gen­er­al: pre­serv­ing a key ecosys­tem while enabling all coun­tries to develop.
  • Com­mons Geopol­i­tics: Des­ig­nat­ed as a “com­mon her­itage of mankind”, the deep seabed faces the same issues of equi­table shar­ing as oth­er res nul­lius. A par­al­lel can be drawn with Antarc­ti­ca, which was pro­tect­ed from exploita­tion by the Antarc­tic Treaty Sys­tem in 1959. Sup­port­ers of a deep-sea min­ing ban advo­cate for a sim­i­lar posi­tion, while oth­er states assert their right to appropriation.

Nego­ti­a­tions on a pos­si­ble deep-sea min­ing code thus involve these var­i­ous ana­lyt­i­cal per­spec­tives and give rise to a new geopo­lit­i­cal sphere with its own play­ers, nego­ti­at­ing dynam­ics and timetable. ISA11 is the cen­tral play­er in this sphere, respon­si­ble for both reg­u­lat­ing the min­ing indus­try and pro­tect­ing the seabed. Strate­gies for influ­enc­ing deep-sea min­ing are devel­oped with­in its orbit. ISA com­pris­es 167 Mem­ber States –  and the Euro­pean Union (EU) – each with vary­ing degrees of influ­ence with­in the organ­i­sa­tion. Not all con­tribute to the organisation’s bud­get, 34 States have a per­ma­nent mis­sion to ISA, 21 hold explo­ration con­tracts in the Area, 36 serve on the ISA Coun­cil and 41 have an expert on the Legal and Tech­ni­cal Commission.

Actors in tension between exploitation and protection of deep-sea resources

ISA is estab­lished as an omnipo­tent enti­ty, tasked both with mis­sions to pro­tect marine envi­ron­ments, and to reg­u­late activ­i­ties with­in the Area and ensure equi­table shar­ing of finan­cial and eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits among states12. These con­flict­ing mis­sions make the ISA’s posi­tion del­i­cate and some­times at odds with oth­er UN struc­tures. For instance, UNEP13 warns about the uncer­tain­ties and poten­tial envi­ron­men­tal, social and eco­nom­ic risks of deep-sea min­ing14 when ISA is tasked with draft­ing a min­ing code to reg­u­late its practice.

ISA is crit­i­cised for its lack of impar­tial­i­ty between its mis­sions. For exam­ple, its fund­ing mod­el means that the organ­i­sa­tion can’t stop grant­i­ng licences with­out threat­en­ing its own con­tin­u­a­tion. Receiv­ing $500,000 for each explo­ration licence issued, as well as an annu­al fee of $47,000 per con­trac­tor, ISA relies heav­i­ly on income from the licences it grants15 for its own fund­ing. Its func­tion­ing makes it more like­ly to act as a reg­u­la­tor rather than a pro­tec­tor. Its oper­a­tional mode also favours its reg­u­la­to­ry mis­sion over its pro­tec­tive one. The organ­i­sa­tion is crit­i­cised for its lack of trans­paren­cy and its insuf­fi­cient con­sid­er­a­tion of sci­en­tif­ic advice. Par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cern­ing are the “two-year rule”16 acti­vat­ed by Nau­ru in 2021 and China’s veto17 on plac­ing a dis­cus­sion on the agen­da for ban­ning the grant­i­ng of exploita­tion licences until reg­u­la­tions are adopt­ed, rais­ing fears of poten­tial­ly silenc­ing oppo­si­tion to deep-sea min­ing with­in the ISA.

The seabed is emerg­ing as a new geopo­lit­i­cal sphere, with its own ratio­nales and fault lines

In ten years of nego­ti­a­tions on the min­ing code, the divid­ing line has shift­ed. Orig­i­nal­ly cen­tre around meth­ods of reg­u­lat­ing deep-water min­ing, the debate now ques­tions the very desir­abil­i­ty of min­ing these resources. There are two dis­tinct sides: on the one hand, coun­tries such as Chi­na and Nau­ru which are in favour of speed­ing up the approval process (fast track), and on the oth­er, coun­tries such as Cana­da and Peru that are in favour of a 10 to 15-year mora­to­ri­um, Brazil and Ire­land which sup­port a  “pre­cau­tion­ary pause”, and France which asks for a ban.

The move­ment advo­cat­ing a mora­to­ri­um on deep-sea min­ing is rel­a­tive­ly recent and grow­ing rapid­ly. It began with the cre­ation of the Alliance of Coun­tries Call­ing for a Deep-Sea Min­ing Mora­to­ri­um on the ini­tia­tive of Fiji, Palau and Samoa in 2022. It now includes 27 coun­tries and con­tin­u­ous to gain momen­tum. Sev­er­al coun­tries are active­ly engaged on this issue and want to posi­tion them­selves as spear­heads in the preser­va­tion of the deep seabed. For instance, France recent­ly signed an agree­ment with Greece18 join­ing it to the move­ment. France aims to use its role as co-organ­is­er (with Cos­ta Rica) of the Unit­ed Nations Ocean Con­fer­ence in Nice in June 2025 as the cul­mi­na­tion of the “Year of the Sea”. How­ev­er, the media cov­er­age of the mora­to­ri­um sup­port move­ment should not over­shad­ow the fact that most coun­tries have not defined a clear posi­tion on the issue and that dis­cus­sions on the sub­ject are evolv­ing rapidly.

Drilling in the Area: a new geopolitical fault line

Deep­wa­ter min­ing rep­re­sents a new divide with­in tra­di­tion­al alliances, whether eco­nom­ic (G7, BRICS+, EU), geo­graph­i­cal (CELAC, African Union, AOSIS) or strate­gic (OPEC, MSP etc.). This makes inter­na­tion­al rela­tions more com­plex, forc­ing states to form new and more ad hoc coali­tions to defend their positions.

States mobilise four types of nar­ra­tives, which clash in the media sphere to jus­ti­fy or reject seabed min­ing19. The first two empha­size the poten­tial ben­e­fits of min­ing: a) access to met­als need­ed for the eco­log­i­cal tran­si­tion by reduc­ing envi­ron­men­tal pres­sures on land, and b) prof­its cre­at­ed in the Zone that would be dis­trib­uted among devel­op­ing coun­tries, becom­ing a tool for redis­trib­u­tive jus­tice. On the oth­er hand, the next two nar­ra­tives empha­size c) our lack of under­stand­ing of the seabed and the ecosys­tem ser­vices it pro­vides to the plan­et, and d) the need for a strict pro­tec­tion pol­i­cy, favour­ing met­al recy­cling over a new extrac­tive front. As these argu­ments clash, three divide lines can be observed with­in allied blocs that illus­trate these new ten­sions: among small island states, among West­ern coun­tries and with­in what is con­sid­ered the Glob­al South.

The first group, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), made up of 44 states threat­ened by cli­mate change, suc­ceed­ed in hav­ing 1.5°C adopt­ed as a warm­ing tar­get under the slo­gan “1.5 to sur­vive”, thanks to their coali­tion at inter­na­tion­al nego­ti­a­tions. How­ev­er, they are now divid­ed on the issue of deep-sea min­ing, between the eco­nom­ic poten­tial of the resources and the risks to marine bio­di­ver­si­ty. Some, like Nau­ru and Ton­ga, want to exploit marine resources to finance their devel­op­ment. By threat­en­ing to trig­ger the two-year rule, Nau­ru is even seek­ing to press for the adop­tion of a marine min­ing code by ISA. Oth­ers, such as Van­u­atu, Palau and Fiji, sup­port a mora­to­ri­um or even a total ban on min­ing. Van­u­atu and oth­er islands in the “Melane­sian Spear­head” group20 adopt­ed a mem­o­ran­dum21 in August 2023 reject­ing min­ing activ­i­ties in their waters and call­ing for pro­tec­tion of the seabed, sig­nalling the gap with their for­mer partners.

In the West, there is a sharp divi­sion between those in favour of exploit­ing the seabed (Unit­ed States, Nor­way, Japan, South Korea, etc.) and those advo­cat­ing a pause or even a total ban (Ger­many, Cana­da, Fin­land, France, etc.). The for­mer stress the strate­gic impor­tance of access to met­als for the ener­gy tran­si­tion and nation­al secu­ri­ty, while the lat­ter point to sci­en­tif­ic uncer­tain­ty about the envi­ron­men­tal impact. The Unit­ed States, which is nei­ther a sig­na­to­ry to the UNCLOS nor a mem­ber of ISA, can hard­ly influ­ence the devel­op­ment of marine min­ing rules, which is why a bipar­ti­san res­o­lu­tion in Novem­ber 2023 sup­ports rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the treaty22 in the name of secur­ing sup­plies of crit­i­cal met­als, par­tic­u­lar­ly from Chi­na. On the oth­er hand, Cana­da and France are defend­ing a mora­to­ri­um and a total ban on seabed min­ing respec­tive­ly. This sit­u­a­tion illus­trates the divi­sion of the West­ern allies: despite shared con­cerns about access to met­als, they are hav­ing strong dis­agree­ments over the devel­op­ment of under­sea resources.

Final­ly, the “Glob­al South”, a het­ero­ge­neous group not aligned with West­ern coun­tries, is deeply divid­ed over the exploita­tion of the seabed. Chi­na and Rus­sia are fer­vent sup­port­ers of exploita­tion: hav­ing already signed explo­ration con­tracts for all types of deposits, they would enjoy a tech­no­log­i­cal lead if approved by ISA. On the oth­er hand, Brazil opposed min­ing projects in 202323, cit­ing a lack of suf­fi­cient knowl­edge and call­ing for a 10-year pause in explo­ration. Chile, a sup­port­er of the mora­to­ri­um along with Cos­ta Rica, fears com­pe­ti­tion for its cop­per reserves, which cur­rent­ly account for 20% of the world’s land-based reserves. The African coun­tries, for their part, have no clear posi­tion: despite crit­i­cism, they have joint­ly called for a sys­tem of finan­cial com­pen­sa­tion24 in the event of exploita­tion to off­set loss­es in their own min­ing sec­tors. No for­mal oppo­si­tion, then, but a demand for com­pen­sa­tion for their own min­ing indus­tries. So the moti­va­tions on both sides of the divide are diverse: access to new resources, tech­no­log­i­cal supe­ri­or­i­ty, a source of intel­li­gence for sup­port­ers ver­sus a risk to marine bio­di­ver­si­ty, pri­or­i­ty to pro­tec­tion and fear of eco­nom­ic com­pe­ti­tion for detrac­tors. The chal­lenge of open­ing a new extrac­tive fron­tier is cre­at­ing major rifts with­in tra­di­tion­al alliances and upset­ting the old coalitions.

In con­clu­sion, the seabed is emerg­ing as a new geopo­lit­i­cal are­na, with its own ratio­nales and fault lines. As is typ­i­cal of mod­ern geopol­i­tics, the role of states is being scru­ti­nized. Busi­ness­es have a key role to play in such a sphere. Indeed, they can push for the exploita­tion of the seabed which will ben­e­fit them direct­ly, as The Met­als Com­pa­ny25 has done. But they can also restrict the eco­nom­ic inter­est of these new resources by oppos­ing their use, as demon­strat­ed by 49 inter­na­tion­al com­pa­nies that have signed a dec­la­ra­tion in favour of a mora­to­ri­um. Addi­tion­al­ly, the proac­tive role of NGOs under the umbrel­la of the Deep Sea Con­ser­va­tion Coali­tion and the mobi­liza­tion of the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty and civ­il soci­ety influ­ence cer­tain states, start­ing with France, to reverse their stance in favour of a mora­to­ri­um on seabed min­ing. It remains to be seen whether the forth­com­ing ISA nego­ti­a­tions this sum­mer will reflect this range of positions.

4Kathryn Miller et al., ‘An Overview of Seabed Min­ing Includ­ing the Cur­rent State of Devel­op­ment, Envi­ron­men­tal Impacts, and Knowl­edge Gaps’, Fron­tiers in Marine Sci­ence, 4 (2018), p. 418, doi:10.3389/fmars.2017.00418.
9Con­férences des Nations Unies sur l’Océan depuis 2017, les « Our Ocean Con­fer­ence » (OOC) depuis 2014, One Ocean Sum­mit en 2022.
10Con­férence inter­gou­verne­men­tale sur la bio­di­ver­sité marine des zones situées au-delà de la juri­dic­tion nationale (Bio­di­ver­si­ty Beyond Nation­al Juri­dic­tion, BBNJ).
12Mis­sions définies par les neuf “direc­tions stratégiques” du Plan Stratégique 2019–2023 de l’AIFM. Le Plan Stratégique 2024–2028, en cours de négo­ci­a­tion, garde ces mêmes neuf direc­tions.
13Pro­gramme des Nations unies pour l’en­vi­ron­nement, https://​www​.unep​.org/​w​h​o​-​w​e​-​a​r​e​/​a​b​o​ut-us.
14“Deep-Sea Min­ing. The envi­ron­men­tal impli­ca­tions of deep-sea min­ing need to be com­pre­hen­sive­ly assessed”, UNEP, 2024.
16La « règle des deux ans » activée par Nau­ru en 2021 faisant référence au para­graphe 15 de la sec­tion 1 de l’Annexe de l’Accord relatif à la par­tie XI de la CNUDM, stip­ule que si un pays noti­fie à l’AIFM qu’il souhaite com­mencer l’exploitation minière en eaux pro­fondes, celle-ci dis­pose d’un délai de deux ans pour adopter une régle­men­ta­tion com­plète. Or son acti­va­tion par Nau­ru en 2021 et le dépasse­ment du délai de deux ans font crain­dre une util­i­sa­tion de cette faille juridique pour débuter des activ­ités minières sans cadre régle­men­taire.
19Axel Hall­gren, Anders Hans­son, « Con­flict­ing Nar­ra­tives of Deep Sea Min­ing », Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, 2021, 13(9).
20Alliance de cinq organ­i­sa­tions et pays mélanésiens visant à pro­mou­voir la lib­erté des ter­ri­toires mélanésiens et à ren­forcer leur liens cul­turels, poli­tiques, soci­aux et économiques, https://​msgsec​.info/.
25The Met­als Com­pa­ny, ex Deep­Green Met­als, est une entre­prise cana­di­enne d’exploration minière sous-marine cotée en bourse. Elle détient actuelle­ment une licence d’exploration pour les nod­ules polymé­talliques et est spon­sorisée par trois États insu­laires : Nau­ru, les Îles Kiri­bati et les Ton­ga

Our world explained with science. Every week, in your inbox.

Get the newsletter