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‘Shoddy’ licences

‘Error-ridden’ deep sea mining licences may be unlawful, ministers warned
Shoddy licences

Main image: © Greenpeace

Deep sea mining exploration licences granted by the UK government to weapons giant Lockheed Martin’s subsidiary, UK Seabed Resources Ltd (UKSRL), could be unlawful.

New analysis reveals the licences are ‘riddled with inaccuracies, based on outdated legislation and were granted for a length of time beyond what UK law permits’.

These licences were kept confidential for nearly a decade; they are the first of their kind in the world to be made public following years of pressure from campaigners and MPs.

The licences detail the UK’s responsibilities as a sponsoring state of UKSRL in its exploration for polymetallic nodules on the seabed of the Pacific Ocean.

Are the licences unlawful?

After Blue Marine Foundation and Greenpeace UK carried out detailed analyses of the documents, lawyers for Greenpeace UK have written to the UK Government warning that the licences were granted for 15 years from the date of signature of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) contract. UK law only permits the granting of licences for a maximum initial period of 10 years, which suggests they could be unlawful.

The licences are based on legislation from 1981, which is no longer fit for purpose as relevant UK legislation was revised in 2014 and does not take into account the UK’s accession to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), or the creation of the UN regulator, the ISA.

The licences state that the UK ‘shall’ (‘must’, in legal terms) sponsor UKSRL in its exploitation of the seabed if it meets the conditions of its exploration licences, contradicting the UK Government’s stated position in March 2020 that it ‘has not agreed to sponsor or support … any exploitation licences for deep sea mining projects until there is sufficient evidence’.

Exploration areas detailed in the licences are more than twice the size of the area that UKSRL is permitted by the ISA to operate in.

There is also an absence of any clear provisions for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), despite the UK being obliged to ensure its contractor conducts EIAs.

‘These licences are riddled with so many errors and inaccuracies that their very lawfulness is thrown into question. For nearly a decade, our government has hidden these important documents from public scrutiny, and now it’s clear why – they starkly expose the gap between the government’s rhetoric and its action when it comes to protecting our oceans.

‘These shoddy licences are the latest embarrassment for a risky industry that recently got a 25 tonne mining machine stuck at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. With problems spanning the high seas to the corridors of power, it’s time for ministers to rethink their deals with deep sea miners. We don’t know whether other governments’ licences are just as bad or even worse, but we do know that supporting deep sea mining is not compatible with the UK’s claims to be a global ocean champion.’

Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign

‘A clear lack of diligence’

Campaigners have been trying to access the licences for over two years through Freedom of Information requests. These requests have been denied by the UK Government, with the licences only being released by weapons giant Lockheed Martin in late March 2021.

Greenpeace UK’s lawyers have written to ministers expressing concerns over the licences, asking for more information on the licences and the basis on which they were granted. Greenpeace UK has yet to receive a response.

‘If governments cannot be trusted to get the exploration phase right, what hope is there of them managing potentially environmentally catastrophic deep sea mining responsibly? These licences show a clear lack of diligence and oversight on the part of the UK Government, highlighting once again the need for a precautionary pause on all deep sea mining.’

Executive director of Blue Marine Foundation

Lockheed Martin’s licences

Corporate seabed exploration must be sponsored by a nation state signed up to UNCLOS.

The United States is not party to UNCLOS, or a member of the International Seabed Authority, meaning weapons giant Lockheed Martin had to obtain sponsorship from a different government, in this case the UK, to explore and exploit deep sea mineral deposits.

It did so by setting up UKSRL, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin.

UKSRL was established only days before the licences were signed. UKSRL was incorporated on 04 May 2012, with the sponsorship certificate between UKSRL and the UK Government signed on 11 May 2012, and the licences signed on 18 May 2012.

This raises questions about how much due diligence would have been possible before the licences were granted by the UK government to UKSRL.

Low fee charged

The licence fees charged by the UK Government to UKSRL are strikingly small in comparison with those charged by other member states.

UKSRL’s total fees for each licence amount to just £50,000 over the 15-year period. Belgium, for example, charges an application fee of €10,000, and an annual charge of €40,000, amounting to €610,000 over 15 years.

The ISA also charges an application fee of $500,000 and annual charge of $80,000, totalling $1.7m over 15 years. The reasons for the UK Government’s fees being so low are unclear.

The lost mining robot

In late April 2021, the first deep sea mining test in the Pacific led to the loss of a 25 tonne mining robot on the seafloor after its communications cable was severed, putting sensitive ecosystems at risk.

The robot has since been recovered, but this raises even more questions about the viability of the industry. 

Over the last month, Greenpeace activists across the UK have displayed banners making clear the UK is deeply against deep sea mining.

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