Exploring The Last Frontier

August 19, 2013

Exploring The Last Frontier

By Tommy Koh[1]

                   Seventy percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by sea and ocean.  However, we seem to know less about ocean space than we do about outer space.  On the 26th of March 2012, the award-winning American movie director, James Cameron, descended alone, in a submersible called “Deepsea Challenger”, to the bottom of Mariana Trench.  It is 11 kilometres or 6.8 miles below the surface and is the deepest part of the ocean floor.  Cameron took pictures and collected samples from the ocean floor.  He commented that the ocean was “the last frontier for science and exploration on this planet.”


Mineral Deposits on Ocean Floor

                   I agree with Cameron that the ocean space is our last frontier.  One of mysteries of the deep seabed and ocean floor is the discovery that it contains deposits of polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides, and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.  The polymetallic nodules contain precious metals such as manganese, cobalt, nickel, copper and rare earth elements.

                   As the supply of these precious metals from land begin to diminish, as the demand for them continue to increase and as metal prices remain high, interest in recovering the nodules and exploiting the sulphides and crusts has increased.


Technological Challenge

                   There are, however, many challenges.  The polymetallic nodules, which are black in colour and resemble potatoes and golf balls, lie on top of the floor of the seabed in very deep waters.  The depth ranges from 4,000 metres to 5,000 metres.  The industry has not yet perfected the technology to harvest them in a way that is commercially viable and environmentally benign.  The good thing is that as the nodules lie on the seabed, they only need to be recovered, and there is no need for digging or dredging like conventional land mines. The three methods being considered are to use nets, claws and suction to bring them up to the mother ship.


Prospects of Deep Sea Mining

                   Whether deep sea mining will become feasible will depend partly on the technology and partly on whether the costs of recovering the metals from ocean space can compete with the costs of recovering them from land mines.  The industry is, however, optimistic about the future.  It believes that the technological problem will be solved especially by leveraging on established offshore drilling technology in the oil and gas industry, which has ventured into very deep waters.  It believes that, given our insatiable demand for these precious metals, it is a matter of time before deep sea mining becomes a reality.

Who Owns the Minerals

                   This leads us to the legal question, to whom do these resources belong.  The answer is that it depends on where the resources are located.  The Government of Papua New Guinea has granted a concession to a private company to recover the polymetallic nodules located within its Territorial Sea.  The government of the Cook Islands has announced that it has rich deposits of polymetallic nodules within its Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf and intends to tender out the exploration licences.  These resources belong to the Cook Islands.  If the resources are located within a coastal country’s Territorial Sea, Contiguous Zone, Exclusive Economic Zone or Continental Shelf, they belong to the coastal country.


The Common Heritage of Mankind

                   What about the resources which lie on the bottom of the seabed and ocean floor beyond the national jurisdiction of coastal states?  The answer is that they belong to all of us.  The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea calls them, “the common heritage of mankind”.  The convention has established an institution to act on behalf of mankind and to regulate seabed mining.  It is called the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and it is located in Kingston, Jamaica.  Any state or company which wishes to mine the seabed has to apply to the ISA for a contract to do so.  In the case of an application by a company, it must be sponsored by a state which is a party to the convention. Without this contract, it would be difficult to raise the financing for a seabed mining project.  To date, ISA has signed 13 contracts of exploration for polymetallic nodules, 4 contracts of exploration for polymetallic sulphides and will sign 2 contracts of exploration for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.


Keppel and OMS

                   One of Singapore’s companies with a sterling reputation and track record in the offshore and marine sector is Keppel.  It has incorporated a subsidiary company, called Ocean Mineral Singapore Private Ltd (OMS), to venture into deep sea mining. The Singapore Government agreed to sponsor the application of OMS because it has the resources and relevant technology and expertise. OMS is 78.1% owned by Keppel, while UK Seabed Resources Ltd (UKSRL) and Lion City Capital Partners Pte Ltd are minority shareholders, holding the remaining shares of OMS.  OMS is effectively controlled by Keppel.


Application to ISA

                   In July, I led a Singapore delegation to the 19th annual session of the ISA.  The delegation consisted of the representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, and Keppel.  We submitted an application to the Legal and Technical Commission for a contract of exploration for a mine site which is located in the deep seabed, east of Hawaii and west of Mexico.  It is between the Clarion Fracture Zone, in the north and the Clipperton Fracture Zone, in the south.  The Clarion-Clipperton Zone contains one of the richest known deposits of polymetallic nodules.


Reserved Areas

                   The mine site which OMS has applied for, was originally half of a larger mine site which UKSRL had applied for.  Under the Convention, UKSRL was obliged to give up half the mine site to ISA as a “reserved area” for the benefit of developing countries. As a developing country, Singapore is therefore entitled to apply for a “reserved area”.


Happy News in 2014?

                   The Legal and Technical Commission unfortunately ran out of time at its meeting in July.  As a result, the applications of Russia, UK, India and Singapore were deferred to its next meeting in February 2014.  If the applications are approved, the commission’s recommendations will be considered by the council of ISA, at its next meeting in July 2014.  I am optimistic that the application of OMS will be successful.  The contract of exploration will give to the company 15 years to conduct its research and prospecting.  At the same time, the ISA is starting work to develop an exploitation code for deep sea mining. If everything turns out well, Singapore, through OMS, will join four other Asian countries, China, India, Japan and South Korea in exploring the deep seabed and ocean floor.  A new era is about to begin.

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[1]The author was President of the UN conference on the Law of the Sea.  He presided over the final session of the conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in December 1982, where the convention was signed.


The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.