It’s rare that a tiny country like Nauru gets to determine the course of world events. But, for tangled reasons, this rare event is playing out right now. If Nauru has its way, enormous bulldozers could descend on the largest, still mostly untouched ecosystem in the world—the seafloor—sometime within the next few years. Hundreds of marine scientists have signed a statement warning that this would be an ecological disaster resulting in damage “irreversible on multi-generational timescales.”
Nauru, which is home to ten thousand people and occupies an eight-square-mile island northeast of Papua New Guinea, acquired its outsized influence owing to an obscure clause of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or unclos. Under unclos, most of the seabed—an area of roughly a hundred million square miles—is considered the “common heritage of mankind.” This vast area is administered by a group called the International Seabed Authority, which is based in Kingston, Jamaica.
Large swaths of the seabed are covered with potentially mineable—and potentially extremely valuable—metals, in the form of blackened lumps called polymetallic nodules. For decades, companies have been trying to figure out how to mine these nodules; so far, though, they’ve been able to do only exploratory work. Permits for actual mining can’t be granted until the I.S.A. comes up with a set of regulations governing the process, a task it’s been working on for more than twenty years.
The complexities continue. To apply for a mining permit, companies need to team up with a country that’s party to unclos. (Most of the nations in the world are, but not, significantly, the United States.) And this is where Nauru comes in. It’s sponsoring a company called Nauru Ocean Resources, which is a subsidiary of the Metals Company, a Canadian firm. The Metals Company wants to mine a nodule-rich region of the Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. In June, not long before the Metals Company went public as a “special purpose acquisition company,” Nauru notified the I.S.A. that it was invoking what’s become known as the “two-year rule.” The rule—which is actually part of an annex to unclos—says that, “if a request is made by a State,” the I.S.A. “shall” finalize the regulations within two years. As it has now been six months since Nauru invoked the rule, this leaves just eighteen months for the work to be completed.
In mid-December, the I.S.A. held a meeting at its headquarters in Kingston. Because of covid, many countries didn’t send delegates, and some that did objected to the two-year timetable, on the ground that it couldn’t responsibly be met. Nevertheless, Michael Lodge, the I.S.A.’s secretary-general, said in a press release dated December 14th that the authority would forge ahead: “We have a busy schedule in the coming two years, but I am confident that our common purpose will enable us to make the expected progress.”…
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