Deep sea mining exploration licenses granted by the UK government to weapons giant Lockheed Martin’s subsidiary, UK Seabed Resources Ltd (UKSRL), are riddled with inaccuracies, based on outdated legislation and were granted for a length of time beyond what UK law permits, which could make them unlawful according to new analysis. These licenses are the first of their kind in the world to be made public following years of pressure from campaigners and MPs , after they were kept confidential for nearly a decade.
The licenses detail the UK’s responsibilities as a sponsoring state of UKSRL in its exploration for polymetallic nodules on the seabed of the Pacific Ocean. After Blue Marine Foundation and Greenpeace UK carried out detailed analyses of the documents, lawyers for Greenpeace UK have written to the UK government warning 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’ (i.e. ‘must’, in legal terms) 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.
Louisa Casson of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign, said:
“These licenses are riddled with so many errors and inaccuracies that their very lawfulness is thrown into question. For nearly a decade, our government has hidden these important documents from public scrutiny, and now it’s clear why – they starkly expose the gap between the government’s rhetoric and its action when it comes to protecting our oceans.
“These shoddy licences are the latest embarrassment for a risky industry that recently got a 25 tonne mining machine stuck at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. With problems spanning the high seas to the corridors of power, it’s time for ministers to rethink their deals with deep sea miners. We don’t know whether other governments’ licences are just as bad or even worse, but we do know that supporting deep sea mining is not compatible with the UK’s claims to be a global ocean champion.”
Campaigners have been trying to access the licenses for over two years through Freedom of Information requests. These requests have been denied by the UK government, with the licenses only being released by weapons giant Lockheed Martin in late March 2021.
Greenpeace UK’s lawyers have written to ministers expressing concerns over the licenses, asking for more information on the licenses and the basis on which they were granted. Greenpeace UK has yet to receive a response. A copy of this letter is available on request.
Charles Clover, Executive Director of Blue Marine Foundation, said:
“If governments cannot be trusted to get the exploration phase right, what hope is there of them managing potentially environmentally catastrophic deep sea mining responsibly? These licenses show a clear lack of diligence and oversight on the part of the UK government, highlighting once again the need for a precautionary pause on all deep sea mining.”
Corporate seabed exploration must be sponsored by a nation state signed up to UNCLOS. The United States is not party to UNCLOS, or a member of the International Seabed Authority, meaning weapons giant Lockheed Martin had to obtain sponsorship from a different government, in this case the UK, to explore and exploit deep sea mineral deposits. It did so by setting up UKSRL, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin.
UKSRL was established only days before the licenses were signed . UKSRL was incorporated on 4 May 2012, with the sponsorship certificate between UKSRL and the UK government signed on 11 May 2012, and the licenses being signed on 18 May 2012. This raises questions about how much due diligence would have been possible before the licenses were granted by the UK government to UKSRL.
The license fees charged by the UK government to UKSRL are strikingly small, in comparison to those charged by other member states. UKSRL’s total fees for each license amount to just £50,000 over the 15 year period. Belgium, for example, charges an application fee of €10,000, and an annual charge of €40,000, amounting to €610,000 over 15 years. The ISA also charges an application fee of US$500,000 and annual charge of US$80,000, totalling US$1.7m over 15 years. The reasons for the UK government’s fees being so low are unclear.
In late April 2021, the first deep sea mining test in the Pacific led to the loss of a 25 tonne mining robot on seafloor after its communications cable was severed, putting sensitive ecosystems at risk. The robot has since been recovered, but this raises even more questions about the viability of the industry.
Over the last month, Greenpeace activists across the UK have displayed banners making clear the UK is deeply against deep sea mining. Images are available here.
Greenpeace UK press office – firstname.lastname@example.org / 020 7865 8255
 A Greenpeace UK solicitor’s letter detailing the legal flaws in the licenses, which was sent to BEIS on 19 March 2021, is available on request. As of May 5 2021, Greenpeace UK has yet to receive a response. Copies of the licenses are available on request.
 UK law permits the granting of exploration licenses for a maximum initial period of ten years only. This may be extended for successive periods of 5 years each. In this case, the licenses were granted for 15 years from the date of signature, which is outside of the Government’s legal powers, which suggests the licenses are unlawful.
 The terminology used throughout the documents is based on legislation from 1981 (despite revisions having been made to UK legislation in 2014) which does not take into account developments over the past four decades in resource management and ocean and environmental law, including the UK’s accession to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the creation of the UN regulator, the ISA.
 The licences state that the UK ‘shall’ (i.e. ‘must’, in legal terms) sponsor UKSRL for exploitation if the company meets the conditions of this exploration licence and successfully applies to proceed to full-scale mining operations. This undermines reassurances that UK ministers from the Foreign Office and Defra gave to MPs in March 2020 that, “The UK is using the precautionary principle in relation to deep sea mining and has 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 by the ISA and are in place.” BEIS officials confirmed this remains the UK’s position to Blue Marine Foundation and Greenpeace UK in January 2021.
 The exploration areas detailed in these licenses between the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and UKSRL are more than twice the size of the areas that the International Seabed Authority has permitted UKSRL to operate in. Some of the additional area covered by the first UK contract has now been allocated by the International Seabed Authority to Ocean Mineral Singapore Pte Ltd, in which UKSRL holds a 19.9% holding. The exploration areas detailed also seem to overlap with part of the German-sponsored exploration area.
 UKSR incorporated on 4 May 2012 https://find-and-update.company-information.service.gov.uk/company/08058443
Sponsorship certificate signed by UKSRL and UK government on 11 May 2012 https://www.lockheedmartin.com/content/dam/lockheed-martin/uk/documents/products/BIS-UKSR-UK1-Certificate-of-Sponsorship.pdf
Licences signed on 18 May 2012 https://find-and-update.company-information.service.gov.uk/company/08058443