The Authority, in existence since 1994, was established and its tasks were defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as refined by the 1994 Agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI (seabed provisions) of the Convention. The Convention defines this deep seabed area and its resources as “the common heritage of mankind”. The Authority has 138 member states, its membership consisting of all parties to the Law of the Sea Convention.
Two principal organs establish the policies and govern the work of the Authority: the Assembly, in which all members are represented, and a 36-member Council elected by the Assembly. Council members are chosen according to a formula designed to ensure equitable representation of countries from various groups, including those engaged in seabed mineral exploration and the land-based producers of minerals found on the seabed. The Authority holds one annual session, usually of two weeks duration. Its eighth session was held in August 2002; its ninth session is scheduled for July/August 2003.
The Authority operates by contracting with private and public corporations and other entities authorizing them to explore, and eventually exploit, specified areas on the deep seabed for mineral resources. The Convention also established a body called the Enterprise which is to serve as the Authority’s own mining operator, but no concrete steps have been taken to bring this into being.
The Authority’s sole substantive accomplishment to date has been the adoption in 2000 of regulations governing exploration for polymetallic nodules. These resources, also called manganese nodules, contain varying amounts of manganese, cobalt, copper and nickel. They occur as potato-sized lumps scattered about on the surface of the ocean floor, mainly in the central Pacific Ocean but with some deposits in the Indian Ocean. During the first half of 2001, the Authority signed exploration contracts with seven entities, giving them exclusive rights to explore for nodules in specific areas, under terms spelled out in the regulations. These contractors submitted their first set of annual reports to the Authority in 2002; none indicated any serious interest in commercial exploitation.
The Authority began work in August 2002 on another set of regulations, covering polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich crusts--rich sources of such minerals as copper, iron, zinc, silver and gold, as well as cobalt. The sulphides are found around volcanic hot springs, especially in the western Pacific Ocean, while the crusts occur on oceanic ridges and elsewhere at several locations around the world. This task is likely to take several years.
In addition to its legislative work, the Authority organizes annual workshops on various aspects of seabed exploration, with emphasis on measures to protect the marine environment from any harmful consequences. It disseminates the results of these meetings through publications.
The Authority has a budget of slightly more than $5 million a year and a staff of nearly 40 people. Contrary to early hopes that seabed mining would generate extensive revenues for both the exploiting countries and the Authority, no technology has been developed for gathering deep-sea minerals at costs that can compete with land-based mines. The general consensus is that economic mining of the ocean depths is decades away. In addition, the United States, with some of the most advanced ocean technology in the world, has not yet ratified the Law of the Sea Convention and is thus not a member of the Authority.