25 agosto 2021

Avoiding a ‘Gold Rush’ in the Area

By Julia Cirne Lima Weston,
LL.M in International Law at University College London, Assistant Researcher in International Law and Moot Court Coach.

This week, this author came across a news piece from an Energy-related blog called Oil Price, entitled: “Deep Sea Mining Is An $8 Trillion Opportunity”.[1] The piece’s title has definitely fulfilled its role by surprising the unadvised observer. One who does not have experience with current Law of the Sea themes may have been caught wondering: why have we been sitting on so much wealth for so long and have not done anything?

But the truth is, as we Law of the Sea professionals know, far deeper than that (pun intended). Indeed, we did not even know on how much we had been sitting on until recent times, when exploration contracts were granted by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and States could finally send their scientists and equipment down to see.

It was not until the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 (UNCLOS) was negotiated that States had decided what to do with the piece of land we now call the Area. Through Maltese Ambassador Arvid Pardo’s words, what was once a ‘no-man’s land’ turned into the Area.[2] Through these words, and their posterior codification, benefits from the exploration and exploitation of the deep seabed were set to be destined ‘to the benefit of mankind’.[3]

With the UNCLOS, we have established a sound framework which has successfully avoided unilateral exploration of the Area by States whose technologies would allow them to do so, if they wished, much earlier than developing States.[4] We have also established important ground rules, especially regarding the marine environment and how it should be respected within the Area.[5]

Another important aspect which was much welcome in terms of developing the UNCLOS’ framework for the Area was the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea’s (ITLOS) Advisory Opinion. In it, the Tribunal shed some light on what the legal responsibilities and obligations of States parties were regarding sponsorship of activities in the Area.[6]

Among the responsibilities that must be ensured by States regarding their sponsored entities in the Area, some stand out when we talk about a cautious approach to the Area’s resources. These are to apply the precautionary principle and best environmental practice.[7] This is specifically important when we discuss the Area, as it is yet unknown the dimension of the human impacts in the biodiversity of the Area which had, until now, remained untouched by direct human impact.

This column calls attention to the importance of the use of precaution when we talk about the Area. After all, as we are still on an exploration phase, we are still clearing out what possible impacts that seabed mining will be on the environment of the deep seabed.

The need for acting with caution is, in the view of this author, one of the greatest lessons to be acquired from the ITLOS Advisory Opinion. After all, we live in the context of the II World Ocean Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, which have given us a notion of the dramatic current state of affairs we are currently at. Sea levels are rising throughout the globe due to our carbon emissions.[8] The oceans are suffering from acidification, as well as from other human impacts, such as pollution from many fronts, and coastal communities are in danger.[9]

From these reports, it is an undoubtable fact that human influence in the environment has had its negative impacts. This adds to the reasons why we should avoid causing more adverse impacts from human activity as much as we possibly can, moving forward.

Of course, the gains to be had from the Area, mainly for a world increasingly more driven by batteries, are immense.[10] And this is for a good cause, as much of the search for batteries, such as for electric vehicles, is also to diminish our carbon footprint and abide to climate change control frameworks, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.[11] All the more reason for us to try our best not to cause more environmental impacts by trying to avoid others.

The UNCLOS and international jurisprudence alike bind us to be cautious. While there is much to be gained from exploiting the Area, there is also much to be taken into consideration, especially its special marine environment. As such, we should stick to our framework by being as cautious as we can before exploitation starts, thus avoiding a next ‘Gold Rush’ into the Area, despite the aspired financial gains from it, as the ones called for by the aforementioned news piece.


Cover image available at:

[1] OIL PRICE. Deep Sea Mining Is An $8 Trillion Opportunity. Available at: <>.

[2] UNITED NATIONS. United Nations General Assembly, Twenty-Second Session, First Committee, 1515th Meeting. Available at: <>.

[3] UNITED NATIONS. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982. Available at: <>.

[4] INTERNATIONAL SEABED AUTHORITY. About the ISA. Available at: <>.

[5] UNITED NATIONS. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982. Available at: <>.

[6] INTERNATIONAL TRIBUNAL FOR THE LAW OF THE SEA. Responsibilities and obligations of States sponsoring persons and entities with respect to activities in the Area Advisory Opinion. Available at: <

[7] ibid.

[8] INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE.  Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying – IPCC. Available at: <>.

[9] INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE.  Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying – IPCC. Available at: <>; UNITED NATIONS. The Second World Ocean Assessment. Available at: <>.

[10] THE METALS COMPANY. Nodules. Available at: <>.

[11] Ibid. UNITED NATIONS. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Available at: <>.

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