Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Responsible Mining at the Seabed,

wickedness and the Wrangle Island

by Martin Bohle
Martin Bohle

IAPG Board of Experts 


Seabed mining is an emerging industrial activity (Economist, 2018, [1]). It is at the margin of commercial exploitation (World Bank (2016, [2]). A nascent regulatory framework (e.g. mining code) provides for governance under the auspice of the International Seabed Authority ( and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This essay explores the generic features of seabed mining. Therefore, the following discussion will address features that are neither depending on the specific technological choice nor on the conditions at a given mining site. Mining for metals (or phosphorites) at the seabed shall illustrate issues because of its challenging societal, technical and environmental features (Halfa and Fujita 2002, Collins at al. 2013, Sharma 2015, Lallier and Maes 2016, Kudras et al. 2017, Durden et al. 2018). Nearshore mining for gravel, sand or diamonds as well as drilling in the deep sea for hydrocarbons offers comparisons. The question, what advice ('how to operate') offer best practices for terrestrial mining sites, drives the thread of thoughts. The emergent conclusion is that best terrestrial practices (how to explore, operate and close a mining site) should guide seabed mining.

In qualifying terms, seabed mining entails operating remotely controlled technology in a sensitive environment that is difficult to monitor and relatively inaccessible (Hoagland et al. 2010, Sharma 2011, Van Dover 2011, Tasof 2017, Brown 2017, Kyoda 2017, Crosby 2017, Küblböck et al. 2017, Hoyt et al. 2017, Scanlon 2018). When analysing this qualification regarding system features then seabed mining likely is a socio-ecological system (SES) that will show 'wicked behaviours' of its natural, technological and governance sub-systems.

Wicked socio-ecological systems

The notion 'wicked', compared to the notion 'tame', initially stems from work by Rittel and Weber (1973) about dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Since then it evolved as shorthand to qualify counter-intuitive behaviour of socio-ecological problems; "… wicked problems require innovative, comprehensive solutions that can be modified in the light of experience and on-the-ground feedback. All of the above can pose challenges to traditional approaches to policy making and programme implementation …" (Briggs 2012). An alternative notion is 'complex-adaptive socio-ecological problems' (van der Merwe et al. 2018).

Socio-ecological systems are a composite of natural and societal processes. SES' is composed of three components, namely i) human systems and practices, ii) natural systems and processes, and iii) their dynamic intersections (Smith and Zeder 2013, Bohle 2016, Head and Xiang 2016). Often, SES' change simultaneously at a local, regional and planetary scale, coupled by cascading cause- effects relations, and binding weakly connected actors in a joint struggle for control (Galaz et al. 2011, Allenby and Sarrewitz. 2011).

Regarding the components of an SES, the first component ('human systems and practices') refers to the 'built technosphere'; for example the global supply-chain of resource extraction systems (Haff 2014). The technosphere includes both, engineered artefacts (e.g. machines, chemical processes) and socio-economic human-dominated institutions (e.g. corporations, regulators, NGOs). Artefacts and institutions relate intrinsically, including the legal, political and philosophical constructs that guide or question the use of a given artefact (Bohle 2017). Applying a dichotomous description, the second component ('natural systems and processes') refers to abiotic or biotic systems of physical objects, which appear as distinct from the 'human systems and practices'. Overcoming such a dichotomous description, the third component ('their dynamic intersection') refers to the interaction of the 'artefacts of technosphere' and the 'natural physical objects' in space and time (Bohle 2016).

This intersection exhibits its dynamics as well in the physical sphere as in social, legal, political and philosophical spheres. To illustrate, the regulation of the distinct physical features of a given artefact (e.g. mining equipment) as a well as the governance of its use, both are parts of the dynamic intersection of 'human systems and practices' and 'natural systems and processes'.

Regarding a likely 'wicked system behaviour'; when system dynamics are non-linear, and processes have multiple feedbacks, then systems often show a counter-intuitive, ‘wicked’ behaviours (Kowarsch et al. 2016). A 'wicked system behaviour' may occur in the component 'natural systems and processes' because of non-linear dynamics and multiple feedbacks. Subsequently, this behaviour may render the governance of the intersecting 'human systems and practices' a 'wicked game'. Beyond a wicked behaviour of SES' which stems from the intrinsic features of the component 'natural systems and processes', also the dynamics of the component 'human systems and practices' may cause wickedness. The features driving wickedness of this component (beyond non-linear dynamics and multiple feedbacks of processes within it) are i) partial knowledge that is heterogeneously distributed among actors at various levels, ii) different values that actors use to determine their preferences and choices (also for the preferred type of knowledge), and iii) conflicting interests of different actors. Finally, the particular features of the intersection of 'human systems and practices' and 'natural systems and processes' contributed to a 'wicked system behaviour' of SES'; the greenhouse gases' driven climate-change problematic possibly offers the most illustrative example (Pollitt 2016).

Summarizing the above, a wicked behaviour of natural, societal and governmental systems is an intrinsic feature of a given SES and not a dysfunction. The questions arise, what is the degree of wickedness and what are available means of interventions.

Ample experience with wicked systems confirms that handling-orientations will fail, which are engineering-like, blueprint based or administrative (Hulme 2009, Tickell 2011, Hämäläien 2015, Monastersky 2015, Seitzinger et al. 2015, Schimel et al. 2015, Termeer et al. 2016, Alford and Head 2017). Instead, handling-orientations are needed that aim on i) monitoring mechanisms to capture developments, ii) intervention forms to steer path-dependent developments, iii) multi-stakeholder arrangements for participatory governance and a shared culture of sense-making.

Relevant experiences are available for several wicked SES', such as urban or regional development (e.g., Termeer et al. 2015, Termeer et al. 2016). However, an aggregation of experiences into ab established corpus of transferable societal practices is missing, yet. Therefore, strategies for handling the wicked behaviour of natural, societal and governmental systems are learned painfully at new in any given case, as illustrated for the marine environment by the case of small-scale fisheries in the industrially exploited coastal sea (Jentoft and Chuenpadgee 2009). Drawing on such experiences, it is appropriate to analyse from the outset whether a given SES likely may exhibit a 'wicked system behaviour'. Subsequently, one would seek for in an appropriate orientation on how to act.

Hence, an initial analysis checks whether the primary drivers of 'wicked system behaviours' are present in a given SES, namely: i) the system dynamics are non-linear and have multiple feedbacks, ii) actors have different values and interests, and iii) actors have partial and heterogeneously distributed knowledge. A precautious action may avoid altering dynamical features and feedbacks, and instead, the action may focus on the governance spheres. Subsequently, initial handling orientations may address how to mitigate the impact of different values, interests and partial knowledge. Experiences with wicked systems show that a participatory approach to governance and capacity building (addressing stakeholder communities) offer effective means (Kowarsch et al. 2016).

Mining at the seabed

To analyse seabed mining, five generic features of societal, technical and environmental nature shall describe its operations.

i) Mining at the seabed is not an industrial activity, yet. Currently, investigations are ongoing on 'how to do it in a viable manner'. These investigations involve research into operational conditions, technological developments, test-deployments and claiming of mining sites.

ii) The legal, regulatory and commercial means to operate a mining site at the seabed are being developed and tested. These activities may involve international authorities, national (governmental) regulators, private consortia and civil society.

iii) The environmental conditions at the seabed, in the water column and at the sea surface pose technological challenges for the operations, safety and monitoring of a marine mining site that are technologically more challenging than at a terrestrial site.

iv) The envisaged locations of seabed mining sites are more remote from the coasts as other industrial activities in marine environments but fishing and shipping. The mining sites will be difficult to access, as well by the mining operators themselves, as by regulators, surveillance bodies or third parties. Parts of the sites will be effectively inaccessible for human intervention.

v) To monitor and control any impact of a given mining operation will be difficult for any interested or concerned party, including the operators of the mining site. Particular difficult will be surveillance of impacts on third party commercial activities, on distant environments, or on neighbouring realms of different legal or regulatory jurisdiction.

These features also apply to other industrial operations at sea, such as shipping, fishing or exploitation of hydrocarbons, although with variations to their specifications. Likewise, similar features apply to terrestrial operations. Hence, using variations of these five features renders possible to compare different SES'.

Compared to seabed mining, shipping, fishing and exploitation of hydrocarbons are mature industrial operations, although neither controlling the inherent risks of their operations nor offering robust examples of their sustainable management. The remoteness of the open sea and the philosophical paradigm of the freedom of the seas provides actors with a leeway (Campbell et al. 2016), also for risktaking and practices that elsewhere are dubious. Nevertheless, the experiences have led to regulate more or less effectively operations for shipping, fishing exploitation of hydrocarbons in most parts of the world oceans and seas and monitoring of adherence to regulations. Also, the related knowledge is shared and commonly available. Compared to this situation (putting a part dredging gravel and sand in coastal zones under national legislation) seabed mining is at a conceptual state. Some experiences from exploiting marine hydrocarbons in deep water does provide some insights on 'how to operate'.

Regarding mature industries and codification of their frameworks, one may notice in particular for fisheries that industrial fishing and artisanal, small-scale fisheries intersect and together shape a wicked SES driven by conflicting values, interests and multi-level stakeholder relations (Jentoft and Chuenpadgee 2009). Therefore, a specific global regulatory framework had been agreed, the FAO SSF-Guidelines (Jentoft at al. 2017). The framework builds on a human-rights approach and participatory governance forms. The experience of marine fisheries is particularly interesting because it provides an example of the impacts of the industrial activity on third party commercial activities, on distant environments, and on neighbouring realms of different legal or regulatory jurisdiction. Ample experiences show how difficult it is to govern these relationships because the governing system in itself shows wicked behaviour.

Compared to many terrestrial environments, the marine environments are technologically more challenging; conditions like wind and waves or corrosion come to mind. Also, the access to remote operation sites may be difficult, including that the access is impossible under certain conditions. Although the conditions at the seabed (pressure, temperature) are harsh, the primary technological challenge for marine mining is to combine operations at the seabed, in the water column and at the sea surface. On the first view, the technological and operational challenges look like that of operations to exploit hydrocarbons in the sea bottom. Nevertheless, it is a difference that the remotely controlled equipment for mining at the seabed is mobile; for example, either to gather ore from hydrothermal vents or nodules and crust from the sea bottom (Shukla and Karik 2016a, 2016b).

Possibly, the most relevant 'natural' differences between a terrestrial and marine mining site stem from the different physical and chemical features of water and air. The much higher density of water causes the high static pressure at depth, the enormous pressure variation in the water column, and the suspension of particles and liquids (Becker et al. 2001, Aleynik et al. 2017, Hauton et al. 2017). Beyond causing heavy corrosion of the equipment, the chemical properties of water facilitate solution and suspension of liquids of different nature. Therefore, the transport of tailing- dirt, stirred unconsolidated sediments and accidental pollution over long distances is more likely in the marine than terrestrial environments. Experiences with accidents of deep-water wells for the exploitation of hydrocarbons illustrate risks and impacts of accidents. Compared to drilling in the sea bottom, the mining operation at the seabed mobilises unconsolidated sediments at a larger scale. The resulting sediment plums of tailing dirt are a well-acknowledged problem without much possible remedy (Aleynik et al. 2017). The related problem for terrestrial mining sites, namely surface flows and storage of tailing liquids, is a challenge for mining operators.

Possibly, the single most significant difference between a terrestrial and marine mining site derives from the communication and monitoring technologies, which are available for operations at land and at the sea surface, in the water column or at the seabed (Teague et al. 2018). Modern satellite- based communication, sensing and tracking technologies ease monitoring of operations at any place on Earth; even at the sea surface of the open ocean although the size of the area still is a problem. To monitor operations in the water column and at the seabed requires acoustic technologies or moored or floating instruments. They provide much less detailed information and slower communication. Hence operations in the water column and at the seabed are more 'in the dark' as at the sea surface. This circumstance has significant consequences for the conduct of the operations, their surveillance as well as the monitoring of impacts on the environment, on the interests of third parties and commons. In turn, the same circumstance increases the requirements for a capability to operate autonomously at the seabed (and in the water column) compared to terrestrial operations or operations at the sea surface.

Drawing on the above, unsurprisingly, the dynamics of the intersecting natural and human systems (and practices) for seabed mining are complex. The description given above cannot detail the non- linearity and feedbacks of the systems, although non-linearity and feedbacks are likely characteristics of the SES 'seabed mining' and, would render likely a systemic 'wicked behaviour'. However, little could be done to alter it neither regarding the marine environment and nor the industrial operations. Such concerns arise even without considering explicitly the living environment in the deep sea. The concerns regarding the living environment of the deep sea and seabed mining are serious, e.g. a less researched natural environment, unknown biota, or slow recovery of natural conditions. Thee concern for the living environment of the deep sea should shape the design of sustainable operations (Durden et al. 2017, Van Dover et al. 2017).

Contrasting with the complexity of the SES 'seabed mining', the knowledge is limited that is relevant for its governance, and its codification is nascent. Knowledge combined with values and interests lays the foundation for what actors understand (and agree) to be appropriate practices. Unsurprisingly, the understanding ‘what are appropriate practices' seems heterogeneously distributed across the various stakeholders. The limitations to a shared understanding concern: the deployed technologies and the related rules of operation, the environment-specific risks, the surveillance skills, as well as the intervention capabilities. Such limitations are unsurprising for an emergent industrial/societal activity. Nevertheless, the limitations are severe, in particular as in the remoteness of the open sea the degree to which risks may be accepted is a cultural feature of the respective individual or legal entity.

Limited understanding because of limited knowledge, different interests and values is a key-driver of systemic wicked behaviours of the component 'human systems and practices' in any SES. Hence, the likelihood is high that mining at the seabed is a wicked SES, as well for the natural, as technological as governmental sub-systems. When one considers the causes of a systemic 'wicked behaviour' of the SES 'seabed mining' then, given the available means to address it, the viable option is to improve the governability of the SES. In turn, to improve governability means i) to adjust the interplay of the different values, interests and knowledge on which the decision taking of the various actors draw; ii) all actors within the SES participate appropriately at the decision taking, and iii) to build system governance for the SES.

Discussion and Conclusions

To establish sound technical, operational and regulatory specifications for seabed mining, that is to set up its system governance, is challenging. 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 Wrangel Island, as follows:

i) to operate at the surface in a harsh environment that is difficult to monitor;
ii) to operate a remote place that temporarily gets inaccessible;
iii) to use new technology with the high capability of autonomous operations;
iv) to undertake human intervention only through remote control; and
v) to apply a recently developed regulatory framework;

Without going into any details regarding 'mining the Wrangel Island', best (‘green’) mining practices would consider the lifetime of the mine, from exploration through an operation to closure and as well treats the societal contexts of mining (Nurmi 2017). Building on such practices, 'responsible mining' ( proposes an ethics-based approach that goes further. It applies the sustainable development principles to the exploration for, exploitation of, and use of mineral resources. It considers the entire value chain, from studies, exploration, and extraction to processing, refining, waste management, mine closure and rehabilitation. Furthermore, best terrestrial practices ('green mining' or 'responsible mining') advocate a participatory approach to regulation, governance and operational decision taking. Such practices often are labelled as 'social licence to operate' (e.g. Boutlier 2014, Moffat and Zang 2014, Parsons et al. 2014, Hall et al. 2015 Buhmann 2016, Falk 2016, Cullen-Knox et al. 2017, Dare et al. 2017, Baines and Edwards 2018). Thus, best terrestrial mining practices take governance issues and governability into primary focus. As discussed, such a focus is important because of the inherent wickedness of the governance system. Likewise, governability is about levering technical choices through interventions into the system 'human systems and practices'. Hence, a skilful governance system will facilitate making sound technical and operational choices.

As described, the wickedness of an SES is intrinsic because of the conflicting interests, different values, partial knowledge, non-linear dynamics and multiple feedbacks of processes. As learned by the mining industry and elsewhere, participatory approaches are an essential means to maintain governability despite wicked dynamics. As experience shows, advanced governance capabilities are required to handle appropriately systemic wicked dynamics (Hämäläinen 2015, Head and Xiang 2016, Lundström et al. 2016, Termeer et al. 2016, Lundström and Mäenpää 2017). 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. Participatory approaches facilitate that governance capabilities develop.

The governance system in place for regulating and surveillance of mining sites at the seabed, e.g., the International Seabed Authority and national regulators for the Exclusive Economic Zone, likely will be unable to handle wicked dynamics. Their design did not have this purpose in mind. Consequently, the practices of 'social licence to operate' should help to govern seabed mining appropriately. However, such practices 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, the involvement of civil society and operational security for commercial and regulatory parties. Likely, to be effective such governance implies, because of the openness and freedom of the sea, to consider the entire life-cycle of the global supply-chain for mineral resources. Finally, a process of a 'social licence to operate' involving a wide range of stakeholders would allow to pick up the 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 the comprehensive system of governance for the SES' 'blue growth' and 'sustainable development'.



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