Mining Gold on the Ocean Floor – Trouble for Environment? Maritime Nations?

by kevindoranlaw

What seems like a long while ago, I wrote an article (which is finally being published in the Southwestern Journal of International Law) in which I discussed how American courts were disregarding the vast majority of international law and their own domestic decisions when treating shipwrecks of historic value sunk in international waters.  In essence, American courts take advantage of a peculiar doctrine in maritime salvage law to grant the person who recovers goods from a sinking ship a lien or an ownership interest in the goods.  Of course, this makes sense when the ship is foundering and the salvor is taking risk and expense to save the goods and vessel before they are lost.  The doctrine makes somewhat less sense when the wreck is hundreds of years old, sitting comfortably on the ocean floor.  But when the goods include hundreds of pounds of silver and gold coins and bullion, the temptation to ‘salvage’ is difficult to resist.  As the majority of companies involved in these operations are American, much litigation goes on here, especially in the 11th Circuit.  From what I have seen, and as precedent builds and builds, it seems unlikely that the practice of protecting American companies against the claims of foreign countries will continue.

This subject is, however, of relatively minor importance compared to what I read the other day on National Geographic.  The article, linked below, discusses the possibilities of deep-sea mining for gold and other precious minerals.  Apparently, gold and other heavy metals are precipitated out of hot vents on the ocean floor.  The argument from the perspective of those who are looking to extract these minerals is that the environmental impact could be lessened because there is no need to dig deep into a mountain in order to get at the minerals.  However, environmental groups counter that the deep sea ecosystem is fragile and not well understood and that any such tampering could have dramatic impacts.

There is also the problem that many of these deposits may well lie in the territories of small island nations (or large ocean nations?) which tend to be poorer and have fewer legal and diplomatic resources with which to counter the pressure of corporate mining interests.  The negotiation of seabed leases and other arrangements between mining companies and local authorities is a source of serious concern for both environmental groups and the local population.

I do not believe that all mineral exploration should be halted, whether above or below the ocean, but our legacy as a species has generally been to rush forward and then try to clean up afterwards.  I would hope that we are learning something.

National Geographic Article:

Deep Sea Mining Campaign Report:

Nautilus Minerals Response and EIS