Deep sea mining legislation cleared the House of Commons today, paving the way for better regulation of the emerging industry.
Under the Deep Sea Mining Bill, which was brought forward by Tory MP Sheryll Murray (South-East Cornwall) and is supported by the government, firms wanting to explore the sea bed for valuable minerals would be required to hold a licence in a bid to protect the environment.
Deep sea miners want to explore the seabed for "potato-sized" polymetallic nodules, which contain a wide-range of minerals that are used for telecoms technologies, as well as in the energy sector.
One UK company has already been awarded a licence – one of 13 to be handed out by the International Seabed Authority for exploration in the north Pacific and Indian Ocean – but there are concerns the sea bed could be damaged by such exploration.
Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire said: "Deep sea mining represents a significant opportunity for UK industry, especially in light of the technological advances made during the development of the oil and gas industry in the North Sea. We look forward to UK industry making full use of these opportunities."
When the Bill was last before the Commons in September 2013, scientists told MPs that technology is now available to mining companies to "vacuum" the seabed for polymetallic nodules, which contain valuable minerals such as nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese.
The nodules are typically found some two and a half miles below the surface of the sea.
The Bill will now go to the House of Lords for further scrutiny after it received an unopposed third reading today with government support, but Shadow Foreign Office Minister Kerry McCarthy told the Commons that she did not think the new measures did enough to protect the environment.
Tabling an amendment to the Bill, which she later withdrew, McCarthy said: "Without better measures in place to protect deep sea ecosystems, mining could cause irreversible damage or serious adverse effects to marine communities, as we discussed at committee.
"Specifically, hydrothermal vent communities, which were only discovered in 1977, and sea mounts, which have taken 10,000 years to develop and have low resilience to change.
"As home to the largest reservoir of marine genetic resources, hydrothermal vent communities are of huge interest to science and pharmaceutical companies, some of which have patents on their products. Mining could destroy these resources before they are understood or even discovered."