Saturday, 7 April 2018

Wrangel Island, No & Seabed, Yes: ?

Seabed mining is an emerging industrial activity (Kyoda 2017, Economist [1]). It is at the margin of commercial exploitation (Tasof 2017, Hoyt et al. 2017, World Bank [2]). A nascent regulatory framework is prepared by the International Seabed Authority applying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

 Against this background, this essay describes some generic features of seabed mining. It will address neither specific technological choices the environmental conditions at a given mining site. Mining at the seabed has challenging societal, technical and environmental features. Therefore, the question, what advice offer best practices for terrestrial mining sites, drives the thread of my thoughts [3].

In qualifying terms, seabed mining entails operating remotely controlled technology in a sensitive environment that is difficult to monitor and inaccessible (Van Dover 2011, Sharma 2015, Lallier and Maes 2016, Campbell et al. 2016, Brown 2017, Aleynek et al. 2017, Durden et al. 2018). When analysing the societal activity 'seabed mining' regarding system features then it comes likely that it will show systemic ‘wicked behaviours’ of its natural, technological and governance sub-systems (Kowarsch et al. 2016, Alford and Head 2017). To establish sound technical, operational and regulatory specifications for seabed mining, that is to set up its system governance, is challenging, even without systemic ‘wicked behaviours'. To illustrate the challenge, best practices for operating a terrestrial mining site may offer guidance such as ‘a practice that is not acceptable for a terrestrial mining site is neither acceptable for a marine mining site’.

To imagine a lively scenario, one may consider an open-pit mine in the high Arctic, for example at the Wrangle Island, as follows: - to operate at the surface in harsh environment that is difficult to monitor; - to operate a remote place that temporarily gets inaccessible; - to use new technology with high capability of autonomous operations; - to undertake human intervention only through remote control; and - to apply a recently developed regulatory framework. 

I wonder, whether under such circumstances mining the Wrangel Island would happen, at all. Consequently, what about mining at the seabed, now? 

However, when going to mine the Wrangle Island responsibly, then best mining practices would consider the lifetime of the mine, from exploration through the operation to closure as well as treats the societal contexts of mining (Nurmi 2017). Furthermore, such best practices, often called 'responsible mining', also advocate a participatory approach to regulation, governance and operational decision making. Such practices often are labelled as 'social licence to operate' (Boutlier 2014, Moffat and Zang 2014, Buhmann 2016, Falk 2016, Filer and Gabriel 2017). 

Thus, best terrestrial mining practices take governance issues and governability into primary focus. 

As learned elsewhere (Hämäläinen 2015, Head and Xiang 2016, Termeer et al. 2016), participatory approaches are an essential means to maintain governability capabilities in spite of systemic wicked behaviours. Such capabilities include adaptive, deliberative and participatory practices, reflexivity and variety of frames, resilience to uncertainties, responsiveness and capability to observe, revitalisation to unblock unproductive patterns, rescaling as well as cross-scale interactions. The governance system in place for regulating and surveillance of mining sites at the seabed, that is, the International Seabed Authority and national regulators for the Exclusive Economic Zone, likely will be unable to handle systemic wicked behaviour. Their design did not have this purpose in mind. Consequently, practices of 'social licence to operate' could help governing seabed mining appropriately. However, such methods are not straight forward as Filer and Gabriel (2017) discuss given the SOLWARA mining site off Papua New Guinea that is licensed to Nautilus Minerals Ltd.

In the absence of better approaches, robust participatory system governance of seabed mining would address differences in value systems, insights into different interests, and sharing of available knowledge among stakeholders as well it could offer the capacity building for third parties, an involvement of civil society and operational security for commercial and regulatory parties. Finally, a process of a 'social licence to operate' involving a wide range of stakeholders would allow to pick up the first paradigm that resources at the sea bottom are part of the common heritage of humankind (van Doorn 2016, Jaeckle et al. 2017). Hence, installing an ethics-based approach of ‘responsible seabed mining' could be part of comprehensive system governance for ‘blue growth' and ‘sustainable development'.

[1] Economist 2018, Race to the Bottom; [2] World Bank 2016, Precautionary Management of Deep Sea Mining Potential in Pacific Island Countries; [3] Martin Bohle 2018, Responsible mining at the Wrangel Island and the Seabed


Hoyt, S. P., H, P. L., Thebaud, O., & Van Dover, C. L. (2017). Addressing the Financial Consequences of Unknown Environmental Impacts in Deep-Sea Mining. Annales Des Mines - Responsabilité et Environnement, 1(85), 43–48. Retrieved from

Jaeckel, A., Gjerde, K. M., & Ardron, J. A. (2017). Conserving the common heritage of humankind - Options for the deep-seabed mining regime. Marine Policy, 78(January), 150–157.

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