India’s Deep Sea Mining Programme
In the 23rd session of International Seabed Authority (ISA) concluded on August 18, 2017 at Kingston, Jamaica, India’s exclusive rights to explore polymetallic nodules from seabed in Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) have been extended by five years. In 2017, Indian scientists have also started exploring seabed in Indian Ocean for precious minerals in 15-year project. This project would not only advance India’s efforts towards deep sea mining but also would set stage to enhance India’s presence in the ocean.
The treasures of sea bed
Seabed is a vast repository of minerals, including the precious cobalt, zinc, manganese and rare earth materials that are needed for smart phones, laptops, hybrid cars and so on. They are present in the three forms as follows:
- Polymetallic Manganese Nodules (PMN) that remain strewn across the ocean floor
- Cobalt-Rich Ferromanganese Crusts that cover the seamounts
- Massive Polymetallic Sulphide deposits around hydrothermal vents.
Polymetallic nodules were discovered in 1868 in the Kara Sea, in the Arctic Ocean of Siberia. During the scientific expeditions of the HMS Challenger (1872–1876), they were found to occur in most oceans of the world. Nodules of economic interest have been found in three areas around the world viz. North Central Pacific Ocean; Peru Basin in the southeast Pacific, and Center of the north Indian Ocean.
Current International Regulatory Framework around seabed deposits
The deposits on the ocean floor are enormous and unexplored. The high seas are also global common property. The United Nation’s International Seabed Authority (ISA) regulates exploitation of the ocean floor beyond 370-kilometre territorial limits. It grants prospecting, exploration and exploitation licenses for all mining activities there. Only an ISA body or state-owned or government-sponsored companies can engage in mining-related activities. However, there are instances when companies have directly approached a nation to mine its territorial waters.
India’s PMN Programme
India was the first country to have received the status of a Pioneer Investor and was allocated an area of 1,50,000 sq. km by UN for carrying out various developmental activities for Polymetallic Nodules (PMN) in Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) in 1987. India did a detailed survey and identified an area of 70,000 Kms² for further development. Going with the international regulations, India had signed a contract in 2002 for 15 years exploration period with International Seabed Authority (ISBA). This period ended in 2017 and in September 2016, India signed a 15 year contract with the ISA to continue exploring polymetallic sulphide. With this, India will start looking for Polymetallic Sulphides that are rich in copper, zinc, gold and silver in the Indian Ocean Basin.
India’s PMN Programme is oriented towards exploration and development of technologies for harnessing of nodules from the Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) allocated to India. It has 4 components viz. Survey & Exploration, Environmental Impact Assessment, Technology Development (Mining), and Technology Development (Metallurgy).
India’s progress in particular is as follows:
- In 2013-14, National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research, Goa and NIOT, Chennai had conducted a preliminary study on the project.
- Depth of the Ocean was measured using a multibeam sonar and side scan sonar imaging device.
- Around 100 blocks – each block of 10X10 kilometers divided into five clusters were identified for further exploration.
- Currently exploration is being conducted in a 100kmx100km area in Rodrigues Triple Junction in the Indian Ocean. Rodrigues Triple Junction isa geologic triple junction in the southern Indian Ocean where three tectonic plates viz. African Plate, Indo-Australia Plate and Antarctic Plate meet.
- A conductivity temperature and depth probe is being used to study change in water temperature and conductivity at depth. This is a sign of presence of hydrothermal plumes underneath.
India has limited mining capability (up to 6,000 meter) with vessels such as Sagar Nidhi, Sagar Kanya and Samudra Ratnakar. Only Samudra Ratnakar has some advanced features which enable a rigorous survey of the sea-bed, and an accurate analysis of the excavated material. However, no substantial progress has been made in the exploration. For picking up material from deep sea, we need remotely operated vehicles (ROV) with robotic arms. They can be designed only when we have technologies to investigate conditions of the seabed. This may take 10 to 15 years, thus, there is a need to start in advance.
China, Korea and Germany are other players in this field. In 2011, China’s application to carry out deep sea mining and exploration activities in South-West Indian Ocean Ridge has been approved by International Seabed Authority. This was one of the implications of Chinese dominance in Indian Ocean. China had sought approval for exploring Polymetallic sulphides in South-West Indian Ocean Ridge.
Laws protecting exploitation and trade of deep sea minerals
Due to geography and jurisdictional location of deep sea mining, the framework for financing and development of a deep sea mining project includes a complex set of agreements subject to various governing laws. Exploration and exploitation contracts between project company and ISA are governed by the Law of the Sea and, where relevant, by international laws. Since projects are situated beyond territorial waters, a varied security regime will apply to provide security to surface vessels, submersibles, remotely operating vehicles, dredgers and extraction equipment.
About taxes and royalties
Resources under the international waters are meant for the entire humankind. However, ISA has been considering ways to levy royalty and taxes on the minerals extracted, similar to terrestrial mining. A 2013 technical paper published by ISA says this is to safeguard the environment in areas of mining. Till now there is no regulatory mechanism in place for this. Since certain exploration licenses are due to expire in 2016, ISA plans to introduce a framework that says commercial operators shall pay based on the principle of “common heritage of humankind”.
Environment Impacts of Deep Sea Mining
Deep sea mining has the potential to fundamentally alter underwater ecology. Firstly, the habitat loss, light pollution and loss of non-recurring species are highest impact implications. Others include: waste water released during processing of ores may carry sediments and heavy metal; undersea noise will disturb movement and breeding pattern; light will change the behavioral and breeding pattern of benthic communities; and lastly, large robots will destroy habitats of rare species.