Greenpeace launch legal action against UK government over secrecy on deep sea mining

Exclusive: Ministers ‘refusing to answer even the basic questions’ on mining exploration licences

Greenpeace has launched legal action against the UK government over ministers’ failure to disclose information over the first deep sea mining exploration licences to be made public.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the environmental campaign group first wrote to ministers in March, warning the exploration licenses are error-ridden and possibly unlawful and requesting urgent clarification.

Under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, government departments must provide requested information “as soon as possible and no later than 20 working days after receipt” or, in certain circumstances, up to 40 days. However, Greenpeace has not been notified of any extension, and the deadline for response passed on 19 May.

Louisa Casson, of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign, said: “First these licenses were withheld from public scrutiny for a decade, and now they have finally been revealed, our government refuses to answer even the most basic requests for information on them.

“It’s vital that this dangerous new industry, which threatens to cause irreversible harm to our oceans, is forensically scrutinised, but this isn’t possible if our government refuses to be transparent. This begs the question: what do they have to hide?”

Last month, detailed analyses by Blue Marine Foundation and Greenpeace UK suggested that the deep sea mining exploration licenses granted by the UK government to weapons giant Lockheed Martin’s subsidiary, UK Seabed Resources LTD (UKSRL), may be unlawful.

Lawyers for Greenpeace UK warned the UK government that:

· The licenses were granted for 15 years from the date of signature of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) contract, when UK law only permits the granting of licenses for a maximum initial period of 10 years, which suggests they could be unlawful.

· The licenses 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 licenses state that the UK ‘shall’ sponsor UKSRL in its exploitation of the seabed if it meets the conditions of its exploration licenses, contradicting the UK government’s stated position in March 2020 that it “has not agreed to sponsor or support … any exploitation licenses for deep sea mining projects until there is sufficient evidence”.

· Exploration areas detailed in the licenses 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.

Greenpeace UK lawyers requested further information on the effective date of the licenses, the period for which they were granted, the legal power under which they were granted, and copies of any environmental impact assessments undertaken before they were granted. They also requested copies of any reports on incidents arising from licensed activities which have caused or are causing harm to the environment, or threaten such harm.

None of this information has been disclosed, and no reason for the delay has been given. Greenpeace has requested that the Information Commissioner order the government to comply with the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and disclose the requested information in full as soon as possible.

A UK government spokesperson said “The UK is playing a crucial role in ensuring that strong environmental standards are upheld in the growing deep sea mining industry.

“We have agreed not to sponsor or support the issuing of any exploitation licences for deep sea mining projects until there is sufficient scientific evidence about the potential impact on deep sea ecosystems, and strong and enforceable environmental standards have been developed and put in place by the International Seabed Authority.”

Deep sea mining has so far been limited to exploration, although exploitation is expected in the very near future.

Due to depleting levels on land, of metals such as copper, lithium and nickel, it is hoped to retrieve these from the ocean instead, at depths of over 200 metres. Demand for these metals has grown exponentially in recent times due to use in smartphones and so called ‘green’ technologies.

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