Canada's The Metals Company (TMC) aims to apply next year for a license to start mining in the Pacific Ocean, with production expected to start as early as the fourth quarter of 2025, it said in a statement.
TMC has been at the forefront of efforts to collect polymetallic nodules from the ocean floor, a nascent industry that could boost supplies of metals needed for the global energy transition, including nickel and cobalt.
Environmental campaigners say seabed mining could have a catastrophic impact on marine ecosystems and should be delayed at least until the ocean environment is better understood and proper safeguards are in place.
TMC said on Tuesday that its subsidiary, Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), intended to submit an application to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) after the global regulator meets in July next year.
"Assuming a one-year review process, NORI expects to be in production in the fourth quarter of 2025," it said.
The company was originally expected to submit an application this year after Nauru, its sponsoring country, triggered what is known as the "two-year rule" in 2021.
The rule put the ISA under pressure to "consider and provisionally approve" applications within two years even if it had not finished devising a regulatory code for the industry.
Deep sea mining could provide Nauru, a tiny Pacific island state with a population of around 11,000 people, with a vital source of income as it tries to manage the impact of climate change as well as a decline in tourist revenues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It has said deep sea mining could cause environmental damage, and asked the ISA to set limits to ensure that mining is sustainable.
A meeting of the ISA Council last month all but ruled out applications this year, but countries opposed to ocean mining were also blocked from discussing a moratorium at the ISA's Assembly meeting last week.
"The meeting ended without a moratorium on deep-sea mining being discussed, despite clear and widespread support," said Martin Webeler, a researcher with the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Webeler and other campaigners attending the ISA meetings in Jamaica said members of the Chinese delegation had refused to allow discussion of a moratorium.
"The ability of one state to prevent delegates from even talking about a pause again highlights the fundamental flaws of the ISA," he said.
Responding to the claims on Thursday, China's foreign ministry said the proposal to suspend deep-sea mining activities was taken off the ISA assembly agenda "because it did not comply with procedural rules".
It added that China would continue to work with all parties to "promote the sustainable conduct of deep sea activities and the effective protection of the deep sea environment."
A total of 21 countries are calling for a halt, with France demanding a complete ban and others asking for a "precautionary pause" until protections are in place.
Greenpeace campaigner Louisa Casson described TMC's announcement as a "kick in the teeth" for those countries.
"It's clear that trying to mine the oceans is becoming politically toxic - even more so with zero rules in place. This is bullish talk to try and force governments into rushed decisions, but it will come back to bite them."
(Reuters - Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Barbara Lewis)