Seabed riches could spark territorial dispute

Billions of pounds of natural resources lay at the bed of the ocean, but who owns the sea?


The London Economic

Oscar Jackson, Marine Analyst

Polymetallic seafloor massive sulphide deposits might not carry the same stigma as Fracking or deep-sea oil , but if the wealth of resources laying on the seabed were publically known, it might.

David Cameron is looking to put Britain at the forefront of a new international seabed mining industry which is claimed could be worth £40 billion to the UK economy over the next 30 years. Choosing Lockheed Martin – an American defence company – to spearhead the drive, he has placed Britain among Russia, China and several other economic powerhouses applying for licenses to “mine” the ocean.

The resources in question are the copper, nickel and rare earth minerals lying at the depths of the sea used in mobile phones and solar panels. China already has a stronghold mining and exporting rare earth products – its rare earth reserves account for approximately 23 per cent of the world’s total –but excessive exploitation means its land-based riches are drying up. A white paper titled ‘Situation and Policies of China’s Rare Earth Industry’ noted the country had “paid a big price” for problems in its rare earth industry like excessive exploitation, environmental damages, unhealthy industrial structure, under-rated prices and rampant smuggling.

There is a rising demand for rare earth materials, chiefly because most new technologies rely on them. Mobile phones, X-Ray machines, computers and cameras are all powered by materials most of us may never have heard before, and the world’s running out. At least, the earth is running out.

The seabed, on the other hand, is littered with deposits of materials which will ensure the long-term survival of crucial technologies. A leading UN official described the scale of mineral deposits in the world’s oceans as “staggering” with “several hundred years’ worth of cobalt and nickel” .

Countries around the world are now vying for crucial licenses to explore for mineral-rich polymetallic “nodules”, which are rocky chunks brought up using a seabed harvester and then broken up to release the minerals. But mining the seabed is a bit of a sticky wicket. Outside territorial waters hugging national boundaries, the big question now is; who owns the sea?

Fight for marine sovereignty; who owns the sea?

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) owns the sea from a regulatory perspective and in late July  reached a landmark point in its history by approving exploration plans for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts by Chinese and Japanese entities. Britain and Lockheed have a licence from the ISA to explore but not extract seabed resources, and will require a second licence to truly exploit the riches at hand.

As things stand, the countries laying the best claim for deep sea ownership are the ones with the technology to extract the minerals. Outside the 200-mile territorial waters, nations must apply for a licence from the ISA to extract resources from the seabed – a requirement established under the United Nations law of the sea convention.

The UK’s North Sea mining technology and strong maritime history has placed it in good stead to exploit areas outside its territorial reach, which are often thousands of miles away from the country itself. As issues in Gibraltar and the Falklands heat up once again, a New Age of imperialism could ensue as Britain digs for riches far beyond its territorial reach.

Lockheed lead the way

Britain’s claim to the seabed, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Although China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) and Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) are conducting work on behalf of their namesake nations, Cameron has chosen US-based Lockheed Martin to spearhead the drive on behalf of the UK.

Acting under the subsidiary of UK Seabed Resources, Lockheed are set to reap huge rewards from partnership with the UK government. How they got backing from the British government to pursue the underworld goldmine isn’t widely reported, but it’s hardly surprising  to hear the name of a defence contractor – the world’s biggest – arise in the same breath as British maritime imperialism.

Better known for building jet fighters and missiles, Lockheed may be proving that ocean sovereignty is out of the grasps of any nation, and rather belongs to the biggest bidder, with the most direct contacts and the most developed resources.  The Cook Islands – in a bid to become one of the world’s richest countries – is also likely to make ties with the defence contractor after Lockheed first collected nodules from the Cook Islands’ seabeds in the 1970s. There will doubtless be big rewards at stake for all nations involved, but in a modern capitalist society, the biggest winner will be the fat cat with the most fingers in the most pies.

Leave a Reply