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Jamaican government ramps up plans for deep-sea metals exploration

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New York — The Council of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has approved Blue Minerals Jamaica Limited's plan for exploration of polymetallic nodules, containing battery metals such as copper and nickel, in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), in the Pacific Ocean.

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The CCZ is being investigated by a number of outfits for the possible extraction of base metals integral to the energy transition. Currently there are no active deep sea mining operations, however much discussion surrounds the industry as the demand for battery metals such as cobalt, nickel and copper continues to gain traction.

The announcement, made late Dec. 14, makes Jamaica, the host country of ISA, the second Caribbean country and the sixth small island developing state to sponsor a contractor for exploration in the CCZ.

The CCZ is believed to contain potentially large deposits of polymetallic nodules, which are a source of nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese.

Following the approval of its plan of work, Blue Minerals Jamaica -- a government-sponsored initiative -- will be able to sign a 15-year contract with ISA to explore a geographical area in the CCZ covering almost 75,000 km-squared, made of parts of reserved areas contributed by UK Seabed Resources Ltd, the government of the Republic of Korea and the Interoceanmetal Joint Organization.

The system of so-called "reserved areas" ensures that developing countries can access deep-sea mineral resources. Reserved areas are contributed when States apply to ISA for exploration rights. They are then held in a "site bank" which is reserved for access by developing countries or for the Enterprise, according to the ISA.

A moratorium on deep sea mining should be enforced until the process is fully researched and understood, the Responsible Mining Foundation said Nov. 10.

As the world gears up for energy transition, it is no secret that more minerals will be needed to fuel a sustainable future. An idea is to dig up the sea bed and extract raw materials, with one argument that any carbon emissions will be absorbed by the water.

Growing investor concerns

Managing director and global head of ESG research and data at S&P Global Manjit Jus said: "As we've seen with the growing criticism around exploration and production activities of energy and mining companies in remote parts of the world, there's certainly growing concern from investors and other stakeholders...companies venturing into new methods of mining and extraction, especially in delicate ecosystems such as underwater, need to be prepared to show that the benefits outweigh the costs and potential risks, and that they can justify these practices to an increasingly aware investment community, not to mention the social resistance they are likely to face -- impacting their reputation and social license to operate."

John Howchin, secretary-general for the council on ethics of the Swedish national pension funds, said he was "neutral" on deep-sea mining, noting that "it's coming whether we want it or not."

An outright ban on deep-sea mining would be more dangerous than carrying on with the research currently being conducted around its impacts, DeepGreen CEO Gerard Barron told S&P Global Platts last month.

Barron said people need to delve more into the details, and really look at the research that is already out there on polymetallic nodules.

He queried "what is responsible mining? Is it sticking with the same intensive mining practices we already have on land?"

The CEO is actively encouraging more discussions on the matter with NGOs, but feels like these talks hit a brick wall before they get properly started.

Earlier this year, Daniele La Porta, senior mining specialist at the World Bank, said that the world doesn't yet know enough about the impacts of deep-sea mining.