Home » Fight Over Seabed Agency Leadership Turns Nasty

Fight Over Seabed Agency Leadership Turns Nasty

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Allegations of possible payments to help secure votes. Claims of abuse of agency funds by top diplomats. A possible job offer to entice a candidate to withdraw from a race.

These are not the shenanigans of a corrupt election in an unstable country. Rather, they are efforts in the seemingly genteel parlors of a United Nations-affiliated agency, meant to sway decisions related to the start of seabed mining of the metals used in electric vehicles.

It is all part of a nasty fight over who will be the next leader of the International Seabed Authority, which controls mining in international waters worldwide.

The accusations of trickery underscore the controversial nature of the agency’s coming agenda and the billions of dollars at stake. Some countries are fiercely opposed to the idea of mining the world’s deepest waters while others see it as a badly needed economic opportunity. Whoever helms the agency’s top post over the next few years will have considerable influence over these decisions.

Michael Lodge, the secretary general at the International Seabed Authority since 2016, is urging the diplomats from the agency’s 168 member nations to elect him to a third four-year term. From that perch, he hopes to help the agency finalize environmental rules as it prepares to accept its first application, perhaps as early as this fall, to start industrial-scale mining in the Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and Mexico.

His opponent, Leticia Carvalho, is an oceanographer and former oil-industry regulator from Brazil. She has called for a more deliberative approach, arguing that several years of work likely remain to finish writing the rules. Her position is that no mining applications should be approved until that process is wrapped up.

In the midst of this already intense campaign, a former senior Seabed Authority executive filed a complaint with the United Nations in May, accusing Mr. Lodge and his top deputy of misusing agency funds.

Supporters of the two candidates each have accused the other side of attempting to influence the outcome of the election by offering to pay travel costs for delegates or to pay delegations’ past-due membership fees. Countries in arrears are generally prohibited from voting, and 38 nations were behind in payments as of May.

Each nation pays a different amount — depending on the size of the economy — as much as $1.8 million this year for China or as low as $831 for Rwanda, with the money used to support the agency’s annual budget.

Adding to the intrigue, the ambassador of Kiribati, a small Pacific island nation that is sponsoring Mr. Lodge’s nomination, attempted late last month to persuade Ms. Carvalho to drop out of the race, in exchange for a possible high-level staff job at the Seabed Authority.

If this clandestine move had worked, it would have left Mr. Lodge unopposed. Mr. Lodge did not respond when his office was asked in written questions about this effort. But in a six-page statement to The Times, Mr. Lodge and his office disputed any suggestions that he had misused agency funds or otherwise tried to improperly influence the election.

“You have a collation of vague, unsubstantiated, unfounded and anonymous rumors, gossip and hearsay which are demonstrably untrue, lack any foundation of fact or evidence and do not stand up to any objective scrutiny,” Mr. Lodge said in the statement, adding that he and the Seabed Authority “follow the most rigorous standards of international good governance and management.”

The attempt to bait Ms. Carvalho into dropping out sparked an angry response from her and the Brazilian delegation. “We have a great candidate who has already received a great deal of support, and we will win this election,” said Bruno Imparato, a Brazilian diplomat who is helping organize Ms. Carvalho’s campaign.

Teburoro Tito, the Kiribati ambassador who urged Ms. Carvalho to leave the race, confirmed the job offer in an interview with The New York Times. He added that Mr. Lodge had signed off on the proposed deal as part of strategy to assure Mr. Lodge’s re-election at the next meeting of the Seabed Authority in late July and early August at its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica.

“We don’t want someone to come in and break what I.S.A. is trying to do,” Mr. Tito said in an interview, recalling what he said to Ms. Carvalho. “I come from an island. We always believe in reconciliation. We don’t want too much dispute in the village.”

Mr. Lodge, in his statement, said he “was not privy to the discussions referenced and is not party to the alleged proposal.” The agency said all vacant positions were advertised through official channels and subject to competitive recruitment.

The Seabed Authority is governed by the 168 member states that ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, declaring that any ocean floor metals in international waters are “the common heritage of mankind” and that access is governed exclusively by the Seabed Authority.

In the decades since, the Seabed Authority has approved 31 exploration contracts authorizing mapping and other preparatory work in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Now the agency is preparing to consider applications for industrial scale mining, conducted by bulldozer-like machines dropped to the ocean floor miles below the surface.

While some countries are eager to move ahead, at least 25 have proposed a moratorium or “precautionary pause,” arguing that there is not enough data to ensure mining will not cause harm.

China has the most of these contracts — five in total. But the exploratory contracts are distributed among several countries including Russia, Poland, India, France, Germany, Japan and several Pacific Island nations. The United States never ratified the treaty, but it participates in the debate.

Member states can do the exploration work themselves or hire contractors like The Metals Company, a Nasdaq-traded, Canada-based mining company that wants to start extracting millions of tons of nodules containing metals from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean as soon as 2026.

The company estimates that just one of its contract areas — a 46,000-square-mile section of the Pacific — would generate $31 billion in net earnings over 25 years of mining. The company claims that its contract areas hold enough nickel, cobalt and manganese to supply all of the needs for car battery metals in the United States.

“The planet’s resources are created for humanity,” Mr. Tito said, explaining his opposition to the proposed moratorium.

The Metals Company has relied on Mr. Lodge to push the Seabed Authority member states to complete the regulations. There is a certain urgency as the company had only $6.8 million in cash reserves as of the end of last year — a tiny percentage of the capital it will need to conduct its mining operation, as some investors have held back while the company waits for a green light.

Gerard Barron, the company’s chief executive, said he has not played a role in lobbying for Mr. Lodge’s re-election, knowing that would draw criticism from environmentalists. “That kind of move could backfire so massively,” Mr. Barron said in an interview.

But Kiribati is one of three tiny Pacific island nations — the others are Nauru and Tonga — with which The Metals Company has struck deals to secure mining access to Pacific Ocean sectors governed by the Seabed Authority. So Kiribati’s helping Mr. Lodge secure a third term is a benefit to The Metals Company.

Mr. Tito said he first met Mr. Lodge decades ago when, as a young lawyer living in Kiribati, Mr. Lodge helped represent Mr. Tito’s family when his sister died while delivering a baby after being improperly sedated. Mr. Tito later went on to become president of Kiribati, a nation of about 120,000 residents, and now serves as its United Nations ambassador.

Mr. Lodge, who is British, was nominated for his first two terms by Britain. But the government supports leaders for international organizations for only two terms, Mr. Tito said, explaining why Kiribati has nominated Mr. Lodge this time. The secretary general is paid about $213,000 a year.

Mr. Lodge has traveled since January to China, Cameroon, Japan, Egypt, Italy and the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, among other stops — visits Mr. Lodge and his staff have described as educational and outreach missions, but which his critics consider improper.

“He’s clearly campaigning — using the machine of the Seabed Authority as part of his campaign,” Ms. Carvalho said.

Mr. Lodge responded that the office travel is a necessary part of his work and unrelated to the election. He added that “as secretary general, and as a candidate for election, Mr. Lodge condemns any attempts to influence voting by paying for delegations to attend meetings.”

The German government, which supports Ms. Carvalho’s election, has announced plans to ask for an investigation of what it considers questionable financial activities at the Seabed Authority, emails obtained by The Times show.

In recent speeches, Mr. Lodge cited the need for the Seabed Authority to complete its work on the regulations. “It has taken many decades to reach where we are today, and there seems no reason now to deviate from the evolutionary approach,” Mr. Lodge said last month at the United Nations.

The allegations of misuse of Seabed Authority funds by Mr. Lodge and his top deputy, among others at the agency, came from a former human resources officer there. The complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, says that Mr. Lodge has collected $67,000 worth of excessive reimbursement since 2016 related to his housing and other costs in Jamaica and New York.

The complaint was sent to the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services. But it directed the complaint back to the Seabed Authority, emails obtained by The Times show. That meant Mr. Lodge was asked to handle allegations accusing him of misconduct.

In its response, the agency said it had robust and independent procedures in place to deal with staff grievances and complaints.

Ms. Carvalho, who now works at the United Nations Environmental Program as the head of its marine division, said her supporters have not attempted to pay the fees of other delegations. She said she would have a different management style from Mr. Lodge, who has faced accusations of being too closely aligned with the mining industry and failing to provide enough transparency for Seabed Authority operations.

Though Brazil has endorsed a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining, Ms. Carvalho said she does not support that stance. But she added that if the Seabed Authority were to authorize mining before its environmental standards were finalized, legal challenges would result.

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