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Deep-sea mining - interview with Michael Lodge, Secretary General of the International Seabed Authority

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Alan interviews Michael Lodge, Secretary General of the International Seabed Authority, the body with grants licences to explore and harvest deep-sea mining sites.
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So our next guest is the U. N. Secretary General. Mr Michael Lodge, who is from the International Seabed Authority. So Michael Lodge has 28 years of experience as a public international lawyer and as a strong background in the field of law of the sea, as well as 10 years judicial experience in the UK and South pacific. He spent many years living and working in the South pacific and was one of the lead negotiators for the south pacific island states of the 1995 fish stock agreements amongst to be honest, countless other roles that are probably too long to read out here, but he's also a barrister of grazing in London, so he currently heads the U. N. International Seabed Authority based in Jamaica. So who better to talk to today than the Secretary general, Michael Lodge. The first question obviously to you is is the international Seabed Authority or the I I say for the benefit of the audience who people may have not have heard of this before? What is the I say? What rule does it play in the whole deep sea mining business? Well, highland thanks for having me on. Well what is the I. S. A. Uh So on its face. The I. S. A. Is an intergovernmental organization. It's part of the United Nations Family. It has 100 and 68 member states and it was established by the U. N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, Which was adopted in 1982 and came into force in 1994. That's the sort of official bit. But more accurately, what is the I. S. A. It is a unique experiment in international relations. I've seen. It described as a high point in an international communitarian government. Well get out on the front door. It's the only international organization that actually has regulatory jurisdiction over a single global resource and in this case, that resource would be seabed minerals. So the concept behind it is that there is a shared space, which sometimes we refer to as a global commons, and the ocean Is such a shared space. Another example of a shared space might be, for example, Antarctica, which has been recognized as shared between all nations since 1959. That concept also applies to at least part of the ocean, not all of the ocean, but part of it. Uh you know, the ocean is a very complex place, as you as you know, Yes, scientifically biologically geologically, but also legally. So the ocean is split into different maritime zones where the Law of the Sea Convention recognizes sovereignty or sovereign rights over some of those zones. I guess a lot of people will be somewhat familiar, at least with the idea that most Coastal states have an entitlement to 200 mile exclusive economic zone. They also have a continental shelf jurisdiction in the case where they have a continental shelf, uh and then there's this separate regime for the seabed beyond 200 miles. And that's where I. S. A. Comes in. We are we have this regulatory jurisdiction over this shared common space beyond 200 miles. I think one of the things that I think your podcast does very well is that it helps people to conceptualize what is the deep sea and how big it is. I think most people are really a very little idea of what 200 miles looks like in the see how far away is the is the deep sea and how big it is. The I. S. A for example, has jurisdiction over 54% Of the ocean that is the size of the space beyond 200 miles. I was I was quite surprised recently to find out that the exclusive economic zones were only established in the early 80s. You know, it's a relatively new thing is you just take it for granted growing up, the coastal countries have a certain amount of space that belongs to them, but it's actually a relatively new concept. Yes. Well, that's right. I mean, it took it took many, many years and many failed attempts to negotiate a law of the sea. Uh you know, then that's why the 1982 convention is regarded as so sacrosanct, because uh and the constitution for the oceans, because it was so difficult to reach that consensus among nations. And uh you know, there were there were two previous law of the sea uh conferences in the 20s and 50 that failed to reach Agreement. And then it was only by the 70s, really leading up to 1982, that we managed to reach agreement on this concept of the exclusive economic zone. Where are we right now with deep sea mining? What's, what does the landscape look like right now in terms of how close are we to large scale mineral extraction in the areas beyond national jurisdiction? So I guess we're a lot closer than we were 25 years ago, but it's debatable how actually close we are. I think what has happened in the last, say, 25 years is that a number of claims have been made for exploration sites? Exploration has advanced tremendously. Technology has advanced tremendously. Knowledge has advanced tremendously. And so we are at a stage where conceivably deep sea mining could start on could be commercially viable within the reasonably foreseeable future, but it's extremely difficult to put a finger on precisely how long that is because there's there's still a lot of uncertainties out there. What's the position of the essay in terms of ensuring seabed mining, meats and glades, transparent environmental impact assessments and things like that? I mean, how does how does I say try ensure deep sea mining is not going to be harmful to the environment? Well, first of all, you have to remember that the reason esa was created essentially was to prevent unregulated deep sea mining. It was to prevent competition for resources to stop at that time. It was particularly, of course, in the Cold War period, the United States and the soviet Union, from competing, fighting over access to minerals, impose a sense of order and to prevent extraction from taking place unless it can take place in a regulated environment where there is equity of access between between all states. Another big reason was to simply to prevent the technologically advanced states from going ahead and doing this under the freedom of the of the high seas in a completely unrestrained way. The fundamental principle is that nobody can go to the deep sea to explore for minerals or even less to exploit minerals without the permission of ECE, without a contract from Nasa. So so far There's been, what? 30 is a 30 still exploration licences issued? So far, 22 different countries are into this now. Yes. uh so far, 30 different contracts. Their contracts and uh This this number has increased quite rapidly over the past few years. Uh you know, we started with I think six or seven back in about 2010 and uh it's escalated quite quite rapidly in recent years, which I think, you know, illustrates the growing interest in this sector in keeping with the whole deep sea theme. There's a couple of areas which are really, really interesting which have already been, they've already been contracts issued for one of the big famous one is the clarion cliff Burton fractures on. If anyone who works in science would probably heard of this. One question I came across was, was this idea of designation of large area of special environmental importance. But then there seemed to be some sort of confusion over so they were to clarify those are areas where scientists can go and perform baseline studies, right? But they're not the same areas where the mining may take place, should the permits be issued? Right. Right. No, they are different. So yes, the Sisi said, I mean it's a it's a C C. Z. Whichever way you want to refer to it. It's a very, very big area about I think about eight million square kilometres total size. Although the mineralized portion of that obviously is much much less. Probably about a third of that whole area is mineralized and it's it's probably the best known part of the deep ocean for Parliament, alec nodules, which you know is mineral that the resource that is of greatest interest at the moment we've issued I think about 16 contracts across that whole area, but we've also designated these areas of particular environmental interest A. Pes these are part of something that we call the regional Environmental Management Plan for the Clariion Cliff Burton Zone and the A. P. S. Are areas that are set aside so we will not issue exploration or mining contracts in those areas. There's a network of areas that are supposed to be representative of the various habitats that you find in the C. C. C. So they're effectively set aside as a conservation measure. The total area of those A. P. I. S. Is about 1.6 million square kilometers, which makes them one of the biggest protected areas on the planet. And they were selected through a pretty rigorous scientific process to be fully representative of different habitats. And then agreement was reached to designate these areas. Of course we we absolutely encourage scientific research in these areas. It would be would be important to find out what is there. So this is the second case study for like for example, that that popped up was was the Lost City. For those who don't know what the Lost City, the Lost City is a hydrothermal vent field that Scottish classic black smokers and all these really interesting vent communities around them. But what was happening there from what I understand dicey have granted an exploration licence to Poland for the lost City, but at the same time unesco have reported that the lost city qualifies as a unesco world Heritage site. How does that, how does that work then? That where I'm going with this is if it qualifies as a world Heritage site, what would we have to bring to not grant the license? Because that seems to us raise the bar pretty high, that sort of sort of circle the lawsuit and said this is a really important deep sea sight. And yet still pulling they're allowed to go and explore it for minerals. I don't know, it seems really weird conflict going on now. Yeah. Ok, so so there's quite a lot to unpick a complicated, isn't it? So, first of all, uh what is the lost city velocity is one of many hydrothermal vent sites around the world, not just on the mid atlantic ridge, although the mid atlantic ridge is obviously an area that has been very well explored in the past because it's reasonably accessible. But you know, we believe hydrothermal events occur pretty much all around the oceans, ridges, which is, I think about 60,000 kilometers of ridges around the planet. But yes, the Lost City is a site that is kind of charismatic one could say has been studied a lot and scientists are very interested in it and they've had a lot of access to it. You know, they've been studying the last city for years and years. Scientists have made their whole careers from studying events, which is great, it's fine and you know, in the process they become very attached to them and you can see why because yes, hydrothermal vents are charismatic ecosystems and super interesting you mentioned unesco. So the first point is that UNEsco doesn't actually have any jurisdiction in the deep sea. So I think you're probably not quite right to say that UNEsco has designated it as anything because I don't think UNEsco can papers saying that it qualifies it would it would otherwise qualify as a world heritage is if it wasn't in international waters. I think, I think that's what they were saying. Yeah, I think something like that and I think I wouldn't attribute it necessarily to unesco the organization. I would say that authors of a paper that was published by UNEsco made that proposition, but it's not a proposition that really holds what illegally, you know, when we grant a contract for for sulfide exploration, the kind of licensing system that we use is a block system similar to oil and gas. The way that you find hydrothermal sulfide deposits is to effectively track back from active hydrothermal vents to go off the ridge access to look for the inactive events, which is where the mineral deposits are. So, you know, that's the geology of it effectively. So when you start to explore, you obviously start to explore from a big area and then you gradually go down from a big area to a small area, which is the area where your commercially viable mineral resources are found. So it's not unnatural and it's not abnormal in any way I think for an explorer to start off from the active events and then work away to look around the whole area and find if there's any commercially viable deposits. So in granting an exploration to contract to Poland or to anybody else, again, all we are doing is giving them the exclusive right in that area to study the mineralogy. Uh and at the same time to carry out the environmental studies that I mentioned a moment ago. So uh you know this is good for science. This is not this is not supposing in any way that anyone is ever going to mine the last city. I mean it's first of all, it's absolutely unlikely that the last city itself has any mineral resources. So why would anybody mind it to tie up the scientific side of this thing? You mentioned it before? But apparently that you have now launched this United Nations Deep sea global database. So I guess any issues anybody has with anything to do with the Sisi said or lost city, they can then just be directed to this database. Maybe you can describe it better. But presumably that's a resource that people can go to to at least see what's being done and make informed decisions based on data. Right, Well, we call it deep data, that's the name of our database. And yes, all exploration data goes into deep data now, some of it is commercial in confidence, which is primarily the data about mineral deposits, some commercial deposits, but all the environmental data is freely available. So, yes, what we're, what we're aiming to do is because it's a hugely important. Part of our mandate is to promote and encourage deep sea scientific research. And there's two parts of that mandate. 11 is, one is to get more scientific research done to promote it and encourage it and those who have the technology and the wherewithal and the know how and the money to do more of it. And, you know, this is one of the areas that I sometimes have issues with some of the ocean initiatives that are taking place, particularly the privately funded ocean initiatives, which which are great, you know, congratulations, five deeps and all this sort of thing. It's great stuff and fantastic, fantastic technology and obviously good science. But the problem is if this is this science is not shared and if the science is not, is not made available to the whole world, then uh you know, that raises raises a number of questions, a number of problems that I think really need to be addressed. Okay, the science is shared. Good, good. I hope it can be shared with esa's deep data. Yeah, probably not. So yeah, now the issue is is we acquired so much mapping data. It's taken a long time to we've got to go through and clean it all and process and quality control and quality assurance because it's now over 1.4 million square kilometers of deep sea floor we mapped in two years. So we would love to just hand it over in a brown envelope to Jeb Co two just put on the global repository. But it's not as easy as that because they don't do any of the post processing. We have to do it for free and then give it to them. We we have the same issue. And I think I think that's a super important point that you've raised is you know, we have similar detailed telemetry for the whole of the Sisi said, you know, uh again, going back to this moon analogy, the C. C. C. Is one of the most intensely studied areas of sea floor on the planet. And I think another point there, alan is that there is no finite point where you can say we will ever have enough data because we continue to learn more and more as we go along. And you know, this is off this often a point made by anti mining campaigner campaigners that you know, we need to do X amount of more research before we will reach a certain point when we'll know enough. Well, no, we won't. We'll we'll continue to learn all the time because that data collection process will never ever stop. So there's no threshold. Then there's no sort of written down threshold, either from the regulations or from the scientists coming to you. That says this is the level we need to be out before we can make an informed decision. Or is it still completely arbitrary? No, it's not arbitrary at all. There has to be there has to be an adequate baseline which has been defined by standards already. But the process is fairly standard that you will need to submit an environmental impact assessment and that will have to be evaluated and it will then be determined if that if the if the impact that is projected is acceptable and whether the mitigation measures that are proposed, this is not anything new in the world of environmental regulation, it's pretty much the same as regulating any other sort of activity offshore. So could you explain a little bit about the financial structure behind assuming that environmentally everything is agreed upon and extraction starts, what happens to the money once it's once, once the rock star coming out the ground? Well, obviously the financial issues is another big area of negotiation. And you can imagine that there's a very widely ranging views on the financial terms for those who really care about this stuff. You can go to our website and you can look at all the documents on this and you can look at studies that we've had done by mitt on the economic case for mining. And I won't go into the minutiae of that. But effectively the the concept of I. S. A. Is that whereas on land you would have to pay royalties to the government or the landowner in the deep sea, there is no landowner as such. It's all of us. So you have to pay royalties to the ECE. Uh And those royalties need to be. I think I think the actual legal provision is something like they must not unduly advantage or disadvantage. Deep sea miners compared to land based miners, sort of in that in that ballpark once we get those world is then yes they are to be shared and they're to be shared for the benefit primarily of developing countries or in such a way as to favour developing countries and particularly the least developed. So how do you get? There is a very difficult question that is not yet resolved. Convention itself doesn't give a lot of guidance on that. Apart from saying, we have to develop some equitable sharing criteria. So there are no other real alternatives then is but the scale you're talking about and the volume that we think society is going to require over the next three decades, there is no alternative to this. I wouldn't say there are no alternatives because obviously you can go on digging deeper and uh on land. Yes, this is puzzle. You know, we are not in any objective sense going to run out of minerals on land, but you will have to spend more to access them. The environmental burdens on land are as great, if not greater than those at sea. You're going to have to go into more remote locations and you're going to have to dig deeper and deeper with all the attendant environmental problems that that creates. So let's not pretend that mining on land is environmentally friendly, you know, it's not. So what would you what would you want to see in the next 5, 10 years? What's the what's the, you know, the next step for deep sea mining and in a positive way? Well, in a positive way, I think what we have to do is do we have to finalize the regulations around it, which as I say, well on the way, we were hoping to finalize in 2020, but unfortunately we got covid out of them, uh moving all our meetings online and having to defer some work until next year. I think we're in a great position to continue the process next year, but we've got to get the consensus, allow member states to sit together and negotiate and reach consensus. Hopefully that can be achieved. And then I think it will really shift the dynamic and the companies and countries that are interested can start to move ahead and start to do the testing that is necessary. So we can we can actually get an objective sense of what is the impact. Was one last thing. It's more of amusing than a question that I was thinking about this myself and you you mentioned earlier, we talked about this before on the podcast about scale and trying to picture all this and in the clarion clipper and obviously is massive. So I was I was sitting there thinking, well, I've seen computer graphics of these manganese nodule, minersfamilies, harvesters, you're thinking, okay, let's let's, for example, take europe, we'll pick on tom because he's listening and we'll put tom in a combine harvester and tell him to more europe along with that take and suddenly it becomes quite, quite difficult. I'm just trying to get a sense of if let's say tomorrow morning, it's a gold rush, anyone who wants to mind, go for it, Yeah. How many square kilometers can you even do in a, in a year? I don't know how long it would take. Yeah, this is this is a super important question and I think it's something you really covered well in your storytelling podcast, is that and again, I really feel this that most people in the world, except perhaps pacific Islanders who live in the ocean have no sense whatsoever of the scale and size of the ocean. The clarion cliff Burton zone is massive, right? Yeah, that's less than 1% of the whole ocean. If you were to mine the whole of the mineralized portion of the Clarion Cliff Burton zone, it would take you about 6500 years. There we go. We've got a number. So this is never going to happen. All right. And I know that was fascinating on that. No. Secretary General Michael Lodge, thank you very much. Thank you. It has been a pleasure talking to you. So There you go. That was Michael Lodge of the Esa. And it's funny to think that if the ice is responsible for 54 of the planet and mr largest head of that organization and he is responsible for more of the geographical area for planning than anybody else. And I forgot to ask him what his favorite party has ever been to was. We'll never know now. We'll never know. I don't have that opportunity is gone anyway. So there's a couple of points that were raised in that interview that I think we need to clarify because it's been a couple of days since we did. It was a few things that we've been thinking about it. I just want to clarify the point about the Lost City in the unesco World Heritage Qualifying status. And the Lost City is a totally unique low temperature alkaline vent. It's not a black smokers. I wrongly said in interview, apologies for that, but it is of paramount scientific interest because it's thought that it may be one of the only analog to currently on earth today that represents conditions of the primary colours and so on. So it is a really unique site. And it's not like other hydrothermal vents regarding this world heritage status unesco report, but 44 entitled World Heritage in the High Seas, an idea whose time has come was in fact published in 2016 by unesco and I. U. C. N. And by authors from both. So if you can you can easily get on the internet. Lost cities talked about on page 32 explains in some detail, well I lost City qualifies as a potentially outstanding universal value in the high seas because it meets four of the criteria for heritage justification. So anyway, so that's just a misunderstanding somewhere down the line. But that was was put out two years before Fallen was granted the exploration licence. So you go, I was right about that, but wrong about the black smoker. Other points are on the data sharing uh organizations like revolution smells an institute even jam step for example, they all have open data policies. The reason why five Deeps does not have an open data policy is because we have no infrastructure whatsoever. That's why we are slowly but surely putting all our data out on other people's repositories because five Deeps was not a scientific expedition and it's not linked to an institute is slippery. The one private persons quest to dive places and the science has been done on the back of that and we don't have a budget or or any people to do that. So that's why it's taking a long time. Other things I thought were interesting was things about environmental impact from exploration activities. And I think declining clipping zone is so huge that environmental impact from exploration alone is probably relatively small. But I do think that any impacts around vents are probably going to be much higher because these are really small in terms of area, these are island communities that live there and I think they will be highly vulnerable to disturbance from human activities including science. I mean, let's not forget that scientists do roam around these places more than anybody and and regularly take samples from them. So, you know, that's that's an important point as well. I haven't heard from both Jeff and Michael. It's interesting to go back to this idea of scale and this mining effort and I think it's perhaps highlights some of the uncertainties that might be upon us because Michael reckoned one harvester would take 6.5 1000 years to The harvest. The clarion corrupt. And Jeff had an estimate of things 15,000 km per year, which would take something like 300 years to do. It all depends on how many machines you have and and so on. So nobody really knows. But I think whatever the true number is to take home from that whole conversation is that we need to remember that these nodules took millions of years to form and they will take millions of years to come back again. So whatever, whatever that big number might be, it's not gonna be small relative to the time.