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Why the U.S. is absent from international seabed mining talks


Beneath the eastern Pacific Ocean, trillions of potato-shaped rocks lie scattered across the seabed. They are rich in cobalt and nickel, which could be used in electric vehicle batteries. And now, they are at the center of a global controversy. Talks have been underway this week in Jamaica over whether and how to mine these seabed nodules. Daniel Ackerman of member station WBUR wrote about this for Heatmap News. Hi there, Daniel.


KELLY: Start with who the players are in this global controversy I mentioned. Who wants to mine the ocean floor?

ACKERMAN: Yeah. Well, a number of governments are considering this. That includes China and Russia but also some more Western-allied countries, like Norway, Japan and also India. And the big reason cited for this interest is addressing climate change. So some electric vehicle batteries, like you mentioned, use cobalt and nickel, and those can be hard to source on land due to cost or environmental impact. But there is that patch of seabed in the eastern Pacific that contains enough of those metals to electrify the entire U.S. passenger vehicle fleet many times over.

KELLY: And who gets to decide? I mean, how is mining regulated at sea?

ACKERMAN: Yeah, so that depends on where exactly you are. So countries can decide what happens within a couple hundred miles of their own coastline.

KELLY: Sure.

ACKERMAN: But most of the ocean is the high seas, beyond any national control, and that is where the International Seabed Authority is in charge. This authority was set up by the United Nations. It includes 168 member countries, so most of the world. And for over a decade now, they've been working on the so-called mining code. They're drafting this rulebook that any seabed mining operation would have to follow - things like environmental regulations and royalty payments.

KELLY: A country we have not mentioned yet is the United States. Where's the U.S. stand on this?

ACKERMAN: Certainly not at the center of action - the U.S. is the only major global economy that's not a member of the International Seabed Authority, and that's 'cause the U.S. is one of the few countries that has never ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, which chartered the authority. Republicans have long opposed the treaty. They claim the rules are too restrictive. But some cracks are forming in that opposition these days. I spoke to Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski for this story, and she said she wants the U.S. to enter the treaty.

LISA MURKOWSKI: On the International Seabed Authority, it's China that is determining the rules. That's not a good place for us to be. That's why we need to move forward with ratification.

ACKERMAN: So China's influence over seabed mining is a big concern for Murkowski, and she said she aims to build a coalition in the Senate to ratify the treaty within the next year or so. And that's also something the Biden administration would like to see.

KELLY: And back to these talks I mentioned this week in Jamaica - those talks were, in part, to keep drafting that mining code, I gather. What has been noteworthy about the talks this week?

ACKERMAN: Yeah. Well, what's new in this round of talks is that the prospect of deep-sea mining has gone from, like, a hypothetical to something much more concrete and possibly imminent, and that's because of a Canadian mining firm called The Metals Company. They are working with the government of Nauru to start mining in the Pacific, and they have announced that they will apply for their mining license as soon as this August.

And this all comes as the movement against seabed mining gains momentum, too. Hundreds of marine scientists have voiced concerns over how it might impact ocean life. A number of carmakers, like BMW, Volvo and Rivian, have said they won't use ocean-mined metals in their batteries. And at least 25 national governments are calling for some kind of pause on the development of seabed mining.

KELLY: Thank you, Daniel.

ACKERMAN: Thank you.

KELLY: Daniel Ackerman of member station WBUR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dan Ackerman