Around 5,000 meters below the Pacific Ocean, in an area as big as the US, billions of dollars' worth of coveted minerals such as gold, rare earth minerals, copper, nickel and manganese are thought to lie - creating one of the biggest natural resource deposits that ever existed.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental body made up of 159 members and the European Union and also composed of all parties to the Law of the Sea Convention, govern the area known as the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone and despite the authority issuing several exploratory licences for the zone the minerals remain as yet untapped due to environmental concerns and a lack of legislation.
However, with millions already having been spent on exploration in the zone by companies such as Nautilus Minerals and Lockheed Martin subsidiary Seabed Exploration, and advanced technology making seabed mining more commercially viable, companies are pushing for full-scale development to go ahead, saying that the world will need these vital minerals as surface mineral deposits become harder to mine.
It is thought that when commercial mining does go ahead it will be unprecedented in scale and will probably have "the largest footprint of any single human activity on the planet" as UH oceanographer Craig Smith told Huffington Post, so getting environmental legislation right now is paramount.
So far, the ISA has issued 13 licences for the Clarion-Clipperton zone but is still working out mining license regulations.
Meanwhile, environmental opposition is mounting. The Center for Biological Diversity, for example, has taken legal action against the US government in a landmark lawsuit challenging the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for issuing and renewing exploratory permits for large-scale deep sea mining between Hawaii and Mexico, which the center says will damage important habitat for whales, sharks and sea turtles and wipe out seafloor ecosystems. The case specially refers to Seabed Exploration's project.
Planning environmental protection cautiously
The US is just one country with a claim to the Clarion-Clipperton zone, but it is not party to the ISA, which derives its authority from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that was not ratified by US congress.
Instead, Congress passed the Deep seabed Hard Mineral Resource Act in 1980, claiming the right to mine the seabed floor in international waters and specifically claiming four areas in the mineral-rich Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. The fact the US is not party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty means it will not have a say on the development of licensing regulations which will govern other seabed mining developments in the zone. It also means US companies can't directly participate in seabed mining, except through affiliates in countries that are party to the treaty.
The Center for Biological Diversity is particularly concerned about the current lack of environmental regulatory requirements around seabed mining, both from the ISA in the US.
The International Seabed Authority is considering how to license the first seabed mining operations.
"It seems that there's inadequate regulatory oversight of deep sea mining... We hope there'll be rigorous oversight, transparency and accountability of [proposed ISA rules]," says Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
"Our goal is to ensure that there's a full environmental review of the deep-sea mining proposal. The scientific review should disclose to the public and decision-makers the environmental impacts of the project."
The potential negative impacts campaigners are concerned over include the seabed floor being wiped clean of life, carbon dioxide (CO2) being released from the sea back into the atmosphere (the ocean captures a huge amount of human-emitted CO2), an impact on biodiversity and economically important fisheries, plus plumes and chemicals being released into the water.
On 9 July the Center for Ocean Solutions released a paper in Science journal outlining research carried out over eight years into seabed mining. It is intended to inform upcoming discussions by the ISA that will set the groundwork for future deep sea environmental protection and mining regulations.
The report proposes that the ISA sets out to create networks of no-mining marine protected areas as part of the regulatory framework, which it says could potentially benefit both mining and biodiversity interests by providing more economic certainty and ecosystem protection.
Plotting a balanced approach
Report contributor Jack Kittinger, director at Conservation International - Hawaii at the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans, says he believes that while you cannot completely mitigate the impacts of seabed mining, it can be done without serious impacts to the environment.
"What we are advocating for is a balanced approach that will allow deep sea mining to progress," Kittinger says.
"What would be a prudent step to take before any major mining activity is to set aside these protected areas so the unique biodiversity in these areas, which we know very little about, can be protected across a range of areas."
In the paper the authors map out suggested protected areas around existing claims in the Clarion-Clipperton zone to provide an example of how this can be done.
"This isn't mining vs the environment, this is just saying 'hey, you can do both and here is a way it ought to be pursued'," Kittinger adds.
The authors looked at the areas as a whole, added some principles for conservation and planning to establish several alternatives for protected areas in the zone that worked around the existing claims. They took into account the unique oceanography of the area, including the productivity in the ocean, as well as looking at oceanography and the dispersal of plumes that would result from mining as minerals are raised from the seabed and from the at-sea processing of minerals, which would also have pollution impacts. They then established 100km buffer zones around the protected areas to account for any pollution.
"All that adds up to a comprehensive approach that would protect these beachy areas and all the unique sea mammal habitats and biodiversity of these areas", Kittinger says.
He adds that those he has spoken to in the mining industry were keen on this approach because it eliminates uncertainty in the long run.
Charles L. Morgan, environmental planner at Planning Solutions and a consultant for Lockheed Martin, also believes exploitation of the Clarion-Clipperton zone can be done while preserving the environment. He thinks the area could be a hive of activity in five to ten years' time if regulation is "not too onerous for the high financial risks involved in commercial development".
The key, he says, is that "every mining operation, on land or in the ocean, needs to be considered individually. Blanket permission or prohibition doesn't serve the environment or the developing world which will need lots of base metals as it develops."
A unique opportunity
Although it is not entirely clear how revenues, royalties and taxes will be divided up in the Clarion-Clipperton zone, it will be mostly private companies, perhaps with the exception of China, exploiting the minerals. How much money each country with interests in the region could potentially make nationally is yet to be determined.
The University of Hawaii has already made millions leasing out its research vessel to prospecting companies.
If not scuppered by the Center for Biological Diversity's legal action, which is awaiting a response from the government, Hawaii stands to benefit significantly from the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. It is likely, however, the centre's legal action will have no bearing on other areas not claimed by the US.
For now it remains unknown when the ISA will develop its final environmental licensing legislation. In the meantime it has adopted recommended guidance from the University of Hawaii. It's also unclear whether the ISA - which was asked for comment but unable to reply in time for the writing of this article - will allow mining production before final regulations are drawn up. But even if it does, it will take billions of dollars of investment for mining to take place.
What companies, environmentalist and scientists alike are keen for is for this uncertainty to be dealt with. And for environmentalist and scientist the key issue is that seabed mining should be planned and conducted with the least environmental disruption possible.
"The reality is that we have the unique chance to set this up, these protected areas prior to the advent of major activities," says Kittinger.
"There are very few areas left on earth where we have the opportunity to set up planning frameworks in protected areas that benefit the private sector prior to the advent of major activities. That is a unique opportunity and we should seize it."