Editor’s note: O Canada!Welcome to the new wild west. If you liked Deepwater Horizon you will love Deep Sea Mining. This statement pretty much sums it up, “countries could have their chance to EXPLOIT the valuable metals locked in the deep sea.”Corporations love to deal withpoorer, less developed countries who can do less by way of supervision because they lack greater resources and capacity.
“Like NORI, TOML began its life as a subsidiary of Nautilus minerals, one of the world’s first deep-sea miners. Just before Nautilus’s project in Papua New Guinea’s waters failed and left the country $157 million in debt, its shareholders created DeepGreen. DeepGreen acquired TOML in early 2020 after Nautilus filed for bankruptcy, the ISA said the Tongan government allowed the transfer and reevaluating the company’s background was not required.”
And mining royalties are paid to the ISA. If this doesn’t sound fishy, I don’t know what does. There never should be a question as to what a corporation’s angle is. Their loyalty always is to the stockholders.
Citizens of countries that sponsor deep-sea mining firms have written to several governments and the International Seabed Authority expressing concern that their nations will struggle to control the companies and may be liable for damages to the ocean as a result.
Liability is a central issue in the embryonic and risky deep-sea mining industry, because the company that will likely be the first to mine the ocean floor — DeepGreen/The Metals Company — depends on sponsorships from small Pacific island states whose collective GDP is a third its valuation.
Mining will likely cause widespread damage, scientists say, but the legal definition of environmental damage when it comes to deep-sea mining has yet to be determined.
Pelenatita Kara travels regularly to the outer islands of Tonga, her low-lying Pacific Island home, to educate fishers and farmers about seabed mining. For many of the people she meets, seabed mining is an unfamiliar term. Before Kara began appearing on radio programs, few people knew their government had sponsored a company to mine minerals from the seabed.
“It’s like talking to a Tongan about how cold snow is,” she says. “Inconceivable.”
The Civil Society Forum of Tonga, where Kara works, and several other Pacific-based organizations have written to several governments and the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to express concerns that their countries may end up being responsible for environmental damage that occurs in the mineral-rich Clarion-Clipperton Zone, an expanse of ocean between Hawai‘i and Mexico.
“The Pacific is currently the world’s laboratory for the experiment of Deep Seabed Mining,” the groups wrote to the ISA, the U.N.-affiliated body tasked with regulating the nascent industry. As a state that sponsors a seabed mining company, Tonga has agreed to shoulder a significant amount of responsibility in this fledgling industry that may threaten ecosystems that are barely understood. And if anything goes wrong in the laboratory, Kara is worried that Tonga’s liabilities could exceed its ability to pay. If no one can pay for remediation, Greenpeace notes, that may be even worse.
“My concern is that the liability from any problem with deep-sea mining will just be too much for us,” Kara says.
Another Pacific Island state, Nauru, notified the ISA in June that a contractor it sponsors is applying for the world’s first deep-sea mining exploitation permits. The announcement triggered the “two-year rule,” which compels the ISA to consider the application within that period, regardless of whether the exploitation rules and regulations are completed by then.
Among the rules that may not be decided upon by the deadline is liability: Who is responsible if something goes wrong? Sponsoring states like Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati — which all sponsor contractors owned by Canada-based DeepGreen, now The Metals Company — are required to “ensure compliance” with ISA rules and regulations. If a contractor breaches ISA rules, such as causing greater damage to ocean ecosystems than expected, the contractor may be held liable if the sponsoring state did all they could to enforce strict national laws.
However, it’s not yet clear how these countries can persuade the ISA that they enforced the rules, nor how they can prove that they are able to control the contractors, when the company is foreign-owned. The responsibility of sponsoring states to fund potentially billions of dollars in environmental cleanup depends on the legal definitions of terms like “environmental damage” and “effective control,” which may be as murky two years from now as they are at present.
Myriad problems may occur in the mining area: sediment plumes may travel thousands of kilometers and obstruct fisheries, or damage could spread into other companies’ areas. Scientists don’t know all the possible consequences, in part because these ecosystems are poorly understood. The ISA has proposed the creation of a fund to help cover the costs, but it’s not clear who will pay into it.
“The scales of the areas impacted are so great that restoration is just not feasible,” says Craig Smith, an oceanography professor emeritus at the University of Hawai‘i, who has worked with the ISA since its creation in 1994. “To restore tens or hundreds of thousands of square kilometers would be probably more expensive than the mining operation itself.”
Nauru voices concerns
Just over a decade ago, before Nauru agreed to sponsor a deep-sea mining permit, the government worried that it was going to find itself responsible for paying those damages. The government wrote to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, voicing concerns about the liability it could incur. As a sponsoring state with no experience in deep-sea mining and a small budget to support it, the delegation wanted to make sure that the U.N. did not prioritize rich countries in charting this new frontier in mineral extraction. Nauru and other “developing” countries should have just as great an opportunity to benefit from mining as other countries with more experience in capital-intensive projects, they argued.
Sponsoring states like Nauru are required to ensure their contractors comply with the law but, the delegation wrote, “in reality no amount of measures taken by a sponsoring State could ever fully ‘secure compliance’ of a contractor when the contractor is a separate entity from the State.”
Seabed mining comes with risks — environmental, financial, business, political — which sponsoring states are required to monitor. According to Nauru’s 2010 request, “it is unfortunately not possible for developing States to perform their responsibilities to the same standard or on the same scale as developed States.” If the standards of those responsibilities varied according to the capabilities of states, the Nauru delegation wrote, both poor and rich countries could have their chance to exploit the valuable metals locked in the deep sea.
“Poorer, less developed states, it was argued, would have to do less by way of supervision because they lacked greater resources and capacity,” says Don Anton, who was legal counsel to the tribunal during the decision on behalf of the IUCN, the global conservation authority.
The tribunal, issuing a final court opinion the next year, disagreed. Each state that sponsored a deep-sea miner would be required to uphold the same standards of due diligence and measures that “ensure compliance.” Legal experts generally regarded the decision well, because it prevented contractors from seeking sponsorships with states that placed lower requirements on their activities. However, according to Anton, the decision meant that countries with limited budgets like Nauru have only two choices when they consider deep-sea mining: either sponsor a contractor entirely, or avoid the business altogether.
According to the tribunal’s decision, “you cannot excuse yourself as a sponsoring state by referring to your limited financial or administrative capacity,” says Isabel Feichtner, a law professor at the University of Würzburg in Germany. “And that of course raises the question: To what extent can a small developing state really control a contractor who might just have an office in that state?”
Nauru had just begun sponsoring a private company to explore the mineral riches at the bottom of the sea Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), initially a subsidiary of Canada-based Nautilus Minerals, transferred its ownership to two Nauru foundations while the founder of Nautilus remained on NORI’s board. As a developing state, Nauru said, this kind of public-private partnership was the only way that it could join mineral exploration.
Nauru discussed the tribunal’s decision behind closed doors, according to a top official there at the time, and the government sought no independent consultation, hearing only guidance from Nautilus. Two months after the tribunal gave its opinion, Nauru officially agreed to sponsor NORI.
After the tribunal’s decision, the European Union recognized that writing the world’s first deep-sea mining rules to govern companies thousands of miles away would be a tall order for countries with little capacity to conduct research.
The EU, whose member states also sponsor mining exploration, began in 2011 a 4.4 million euro ($5.1 million) project to help Pacific island states develop mining codes. However, by 2018, when most states had finished drafting national regulations, the Pacific Network on Globalization (PANG) found that the mining codes did “not sufficiently safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples or protect the environment in line with international law.” In addition, in some cases countries enacted legislation before civil society actors were aware that there was legislation, says PANG executive director Maureen Penjueli.
“In our region, most of our legislation assumes impact is very small, so there’s no reason to consult widely,” she says. “We found in most legislations is that it is assumed it’s only where mining takes place, not where impacts are felt.”
For Kara, mining laws are one thing, but enforcement is another. Sponsoring states must have “effective control” over the companies they sponsor, according to mineral exploration rules, but the ISA has not explicitly defined what that means. For example, the exploration contract for Tonga Offshore Mining Limited (TOML) says that if “control” changes, it must find a new sponsoring state. When DeepGreen acquired TOML in early 2020 after Nautilus filed for bankruptcy, the ISA said the Tongan government allowed the transfer and reevaluating the company’s background was not required.
Kara questions whether Tonga can adequately control TOML, its management, and its activities. TOML is registered in Tonga, but its management consists of Australian and Canadian employees of DeepGreen. It is owned by the Canadian company. Since DeepGreen acquired TOML, the only Tongan national in the company is no longer listed in a management role.
“It’s not enough to be incorporated in the sponsoring state. The sponsoring state must also be able to control the contractor and that raises the question as to the capacity to control,” Feichtner says.
When Kara’s Civil Society Forum of Tonga and others wrote to the ISA, they argued Canada should be the state sponsor of TOML, considering TOML is owned by a Canadian firm. In response, the ISA wrote that the Tongan government “has no objection” to the management changes, so no change was needed.
“Of all the work they’re doing in the area, I don’t know whether there’s any Tongan sitting there, doing the so-called validation and ascertaining what they do. We’re taking all of this at face value,” Kara says. With few resources to track down people who live in Canada or Australia, Kara is worried that Tonga will not be able to hold foreign individuals accountable for problems that may arise.
In merging with a U.S.-based company, DeepGreen became The Metals Company and will be responsible to shareholders in the U.S. The U.S., however, has not signed on to the U.N. convention that guides the ISA, and as such is not bound by ISA regulations, the only authority governing mining in the high seas.
“What I think is pretty clear is that ‘effective control’ means economic, not regulatory, control,” says Duncan Currie, a lawyer who advises conservation groups on ocean law. “So wherever it is, it’s not in Tonga.”
On Sept. 7, Tonga’s delegation to the IUCN’s global conservation summit in France joined 80% of government agencies that voted for a motion calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until more was known about the impacts and implications of policies.
“As a scientist, I am heartened by their decision,” says Douglas McCauley a professor of ocean science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The passage of this motion acknowledges research from scientists around the world showing that ocean mining is simply too risky a proposition for the planet and people.”
Tonga’s government continues to sponsor an exploration permit for TOML. According to the latest information, Tonga and TOML have agreed that the company will pay $1.25 in royalties for every ton of nodules mined. That may amount to just 0.16% of the value of the activities the country sponsors, according to scenarios presented to the ISA by a group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Royalties paid to the ISA and then distributed to countries may be around $100,000.
Nauru’s contract with NORI stipulates that the company is not required to pay income tax. DeepGreen has reported in filings to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that royalties will not be finalized until the ISA completes the exploitation code. With the two-year rule, NORI plans to apply for a mining permit, regardless of when the code is written.
“The only substantial economic benefit [Nauru] might derive is from royalty payments, and these are not even specified yet. and on the other hand, it potentially incurs this huge liability if something goes wrong,” Feichtner says.
Like NORI, TOML began its life as a subsidiary of Nautilus minerals, one of the world’s first deep-sea miners. Just before Nautilus’s project in Papua New Guinea’s waters failed and left the country $157 million in debt, its shareholders created DeepGreen.
“I am afraid that Tonga will be another Papua New Guinea,” Kara says. “If they start mining and something happens out there, we don’t have the resources, the expertise, because we need to validate what they’re doing.”
DeepGreen has said it is giving “developing” states like Tonga the opportunity to benefit from seabed mining without shouldering the commercial and technical risk. DeepGreen did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment.
“I’m still trying to figure out their angle. Personally, I think DeepGreen is using Pacific islanders to hype their image. I’m still thinking that we were never really the target. The shareholders have always been their target,” Kara says.
She says she doubts the minerals at the bottom of the ocean are needed for the world to transition away from fossil fuels. In a letter to a Tongan newspaper, Kara wrote, “Deep-sea mining is a relic, left over from the extractive economic approaches of the ’60s and ’70s. It has no place in this modern age of a sustainable blue economy. As Pacific Islanders already know — and science is just starting to learn — the deep ocean is connected to shallower waters and the coral reefs and lagoons. What happens in the deep doesn’t stay in the deep.”
The New Zealand Supreme Court recently blocked consent for a seabed mining operation that would annually extract 50 million tons of iron ore from the seabed off the coast of South Taranaki.
Environmentalists see this decision as a clear victory, but the mining company has stated its intention to reapply for mining permission.
But experts say it’s unlikely the company, Trans-Tasman Resources Limited (TTR), will be able to regain consent due to fundamental issues with its application, such as the distinct lack of baseline studies on resident marine life and the potential impacts of mining.
Conservationists say seabed mining in this part of New Zealand would cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem and threaten many rare and endangered species.
Conservationists have expressed hope that a New Zealand company whose bid to mine the seabed was blocked by the country’s highest court last month has little chance of winning approval.
The Supreme Court of New Zealand ruled unanimously on Sept. 30 to block consent for the mining operation that would extract millions of tons of iron ore from the seabed off the coast of South Taranaki on the nation’s North Island. Experts say that the decision was primarily based on the finding that mining company Trans-Tasman Resources Limited (TTR) could not illustrate that its activities would not cause “material harm” to the environment.
While TTR seems confident that it will be able to reapply for mining consent, conservationists who have spent years campaigning against seabed mining in New Zealand say the company will not find an easy path due to fundamental issues in its application. For instance, they point out that TTR’s most recent application lacked studies about resident marine life and the impacts of mining on species and the overall ecosystem.
“The company hadn’t done its homework,” Cindy Baxter, chair of Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM), one group that opposed the mining application, told Mongabay in an interview. “It didn’t even have baseline data for where it wanted to mine, so no one can even measure what the [impacts] would be if it went ahead.”
Duncan Currie, an international environmental lawyer who acted as counsel to KASM and Greenpeace Aotearoa, said it would be “extremely difficult” for TTR to get its application reapproved due to this lack of baseline data. He added that researching to obtain this data would be like “throwing the money away” since it would still be unlikely for TTR to prove that mining would not cause material harm to marine life.
TTR’s application proposed to extract 50 million tons of iron-rich sand from a 66 -square -kilometer (23-square-mile) area of the seabed each year over a period of 35 years. But it would take just take 5 million tons of iron-ore each year and dump the remaining 45 million tons of sand back into the ocean.
Conservationists say the mining would have caused irreversible damage to the environment by smothering sensitive rocky coral reef systems with sediment plumes. Mining residue and noise pollution could also threaten the survival of many species, including New Zealand’s little blue penguins (Eudyptula minor) and critically endangered Māui dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui), experts say. The region has also recently been recognized as a foraging ground for a newly identified population of pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda).
In the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision, there were weeks of hearings and submissions by conservation groups such as KASM and Greenpeace Aotearoa, iwi (Maori tribes), independent scientists and even the fishing industry.
“I’ve campaigned on bottom trawling, and there we were hand in hand with the fishing industry,” Baxter said. “But the fishing industry can see the potential impact to their business … and I think we won really in the process because our environmental arguments were so strong.”
In 2017, New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Agency granted TTR consent on its application to mine the seabed off the coast of South Taranaki. But in 2018, New Zealand’s high court reversed the EPA’s decision. TTR then made an appeal to New Zealand’s court of appeals, but the company was not successful.
“What was interesting there is that the [decision-making] committee specifically said in the recommendation [for the first application] that the applicant should go back and do some of these studies because basically, they hadn’t done [them],” Duncan said. TTR’s latest application still lacked these baseline studies, but did include “new plume modeling,” according to Duncan.
The new plume modeling suggested that the sediment would not cause as much harm to the marine environment as previously thought. Yet Phil McCabe, the Pacific liaison for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, told Mongabay that the modeling was “questionable.”
TTR did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment. But in a statement published shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, Alan J. Eggers, executive chairman of TTR, said the company was “satisfied” with the court’s decision since it would have the opportunity to reapply.
If TTR does resubmit an application for mining, Baxter said, it will face the same opposition from environmental groups, scientists, iwi and the fishing industry.
“We’re not going to go away,” she said. “We’re not going to suddenly give up and not bother to oppose any application. We’re going to be there every single step of the way.”
McCabe said a way to ensure that deep-sea mining will not occur in the future is for New Zealand to enact a total ban on the activity.
“The world views us as a country that has a pretty strong moral compass for the environment,” McCabe said. “So I think it’s appropriate for us to stand in place of caution on this issue.
Only a few other nations have pursued plans to allow seabed mining within their territorial waters, although none of these ventures have been allowed to proceed due to environmental concerns. For instance, in 2018, the Mexican government rejected a permit for Exploraciones Oceanicas, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, to start mining for phosphate in the seabed of Mexico’s exclusive economic zone, due to the damage it could cause to habitat for loggerhead turtles, gray whales and humpback whales, as well as local fishing grounds. And in Namibia, the high court recently found the company Namibian Marine Phosphate in breach of its license when it conducted trial mining, which put a halt to its activities.
In 2019, the now-defunct company Nautilus received the first ever license to begin seabed mining in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and started exploratory drilling near a network of hydrothermal vents. But before Nautilus could start extracting any minerals, the company went bankrupt, leaving the PNG government with millions of dollars of debt and the local marine environment severely damaged. David Heydon, the former CEO of Nautilus, went on to found Canada-based company DeepGreen, which recently became The Metals Company when it merged with NASDAQ-listed Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation.
While seabed mining in nations’ territorial waters faces delays, there is a move to start mining in international waters within the next two years. The Pacific island nation of Nauru, which sponsors the Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of The Metals Company, recently triggered a “two-year rule” that would require the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N.-mandated body overseeing seabed mining in international waters, to allow mining to commence with whatever rules and regulations are in place by then.
There is considerable opposition to deep-sea mining in international waters from scientists, conservationists, governments and civil society. At last month’s congress of global conservation authority the IUCN in Marseille, France, delegates voted overwhelmingly in support of a motion that called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining and the reform of the ISA. Government agencies from 37 states voted in favor of the motion, including Germany, a sponsoring state for a deep-sea mining company.
“There’s a number of things that are stacking up in favor of a moratorium,” McCabe said. “And this New Zealand case is another solid, concrete example of this activity being shown to be too destructive.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
Editor’s Note: Deep sea mining is being pursued on the pretext of a transition towards a “cleaner” source of energy. This transition is being hailed as “the solution” to all environmental problems by the majority of the environmental movement. The irony of “the solution” to environmental problems being destruction of natural communities seems to be lost on a lot of people.
The International Seabed Authority has been criticized for a lack of transparency and corporate capture by the companies it is supposed to regulate. Given that the organization is expected to be funded from mining royalties, it may not come as a surprise that it has prioritized the interests of corporations above the preservation of the deep sea. Despite numerous concerns raised about Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI)’s environmental impact statement, the ISA gave permission to NORI to begin exploratory mining. NORI’s vessel, The Hidden Gem, is currently extracting polymetallic nodules from the seafloor in the Clarion Clipperton Zone. This exploratory mining will cause tremendous harm itself, but it is also a big step towards opening the gates to large-scale commercial exploitation of the deep sea. To help stop this, get organized, become a Deep Sea Defender.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the intergovernmental body responsible for overseeing deep sea mining operations and for protecting the ocean, recently granted approval for a mining trial to commence in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean.
The company undertaking this trial is Nauru Ocean Resources Inc (NORI), a subsidiary of Canadian-owned The Metals Company (TMC), which is aiming to start annually extracting 1.3 million metric tons of polymetallic nodules from the CCZ as early as 2024.
The approval for this mining test, the first of its kind since the 1970s, was first announced by TMC earlier this week.
Mining opponents said the ruling took them by surprise and they feared it would pave the way for exploitation to begin in the near future, despite growing concerns about the safety and necessity of deep sea mining.
On Sept. 14, the Hidden Gem — an industrial drill ship operated by a subsidiary of The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian deep sea mining corporation — left its port in Manzanillo, Mexico. From there, it headed toward the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a vast abyssal plain in international waters of the Pacific Ocean that stretches over 4.5 million square kilometers (1.7 million square miles) across the deep sea, roughly equivalent in size to half of Canada.
The goal of TMC’s expedition is to test its mining equipment that will vacuum up polymetallic nodules, potato-shaped rocks formed over millions of years. The nodules contain commercially coveted minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese. TMC, a publicly traded company listed on the Nasdaq exchange, announced that it aims to collect 3,600 metric tons of these nodules during this test period.
This operation came as a surprise to opponents of deep-sea mining, mainly because of the stealth with which they said the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — the UN-affiliated intergovernmental body dually responsible for overseeing mining in international waters and for protecting the deep sea — authorized TMC to commence the trial.
It is the first such trial the ISA has authorized after years of debate over whether it should permit deep-sea mining to commence in international waters, and if so, under what conditions. News of the authorization did not come initially from the ISA, but from TMC itself in a press release dated September 7. The ISA eventually posted its own statement on Sept. 15, more than a week after TMC’s announcement. It is not clear when the ISA granted the authorization.
“We’ve been caught off guard by this,” Arlo Hemphill, a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace, an organization campaigning to prevent deep sea mining operations, told Mongabay in an interview. “There’s been little time for us to react.”
Mounting concerns, sudden actions
Several weeks ago, in July and August, delegates to the ISA met in Kingston, Jamaica, to discuss how, when and if deep sea mining could begin. In July 2021, discussions acquired a sense of urgency when the Pacific island state of Nauru triggered an arcane rule embedded in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that could obligate the ISA to kick-start exploitation in about two years with whatever rules are in place at the time. Nauru is the sponsor of Nauru Ocean Resources Inc (NORI), a subsidiary of TMC that is undertaking the tests. TMC told Mongabay that it expects to apply for its exploitation license in 2023, and if approved by the ISA, to begin mining towards the end of 2024.
The ISA subsequently scheduled a series of meetings to accelerate the development of mining regulations, but has yet to adopt a final set of rules.
The delay is due, in part, to the increasing number of states and observers from civil society raising concerns about the safety and necessity of deep sea mining. Some member states, including Palau, Fiji and Samoa, have even called for a moratorium on deep sea mining until more is understood about the marine environment that companies want to exploit. Other concerns hinge upon an environmental impact statement (EIS) that NORI had to submit in order for mining to begin.
NORI submitted an initial draft of its EIS in July 2021, as per ISA requirements, and an updated version in March 2022.
Matt Gianni, a political and policy adviser for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a group of environmental NGOs calling for NORI’s testing approval to be rescinded, said that the ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission (LTC) — the organ responsible for issuing mining licenses — previously cited “serious concerns” about NORI’s EIS, including the fact that it lacked baseline environmental data. The LTC had also raised concerns about the comprehensiveness of the group’s Environmental Management and Monitoring Plan (EMMP), he said.
But then, “all of a sudden,” the LTC granted approval for the mining test without first consulting ISA council members, said Gianni, who acts as an observer at ISA meetings.
The fact that TMC announced the decision before the ISA did “reinforces the impression that it’s the contractor and the LTC and the [ISA] secretariat that are driving the agenda, and states are following along,” Gianni said.
Harald Brekke, chair of the LTC, sent Mongabay a statement similarly worded to the recent announcement made by the ISA. He said that the LTC had reviewed NORI’s EIS and EMMP for “completeness, accuracy and statistical reliability,” and that an internal working group had worked closely with NORI to address concerns. In response, the mining group adequately dealt with the issues, which allowed the LTC to approve the proposed testing activities, he said.
“This is a normal contract procedure between the [ISA] Secretary-General and the Contractor, on the advice and recommendations by the [Legal and Technical] Commission,” Brekke said in the emailed statement. “It is not a decision to be made by the [ISA] Council. According to the normal procedure of ISA, the details of this process will be [communicated] by the Chair of the Commission to the Council at its session in November.”
“I also would like to point out that this procedure has followed the regulations and guidelines of ISA,” Brekke added, “which are implemented to take care of the possible environmental impacts of this kind of exploration activity.”
Yet Gianni said he did not believe the LTC had satisfactorily reviewed the EIS for its full potential of environmental impact, nor had it considered the “serious harmful effects on vulnerable marine ecosystems” as required under the ISA’s own exploration regulations for polymetallic nodules.
Questions about transparency
Sandor Mulsow, who worked as the director of environment and minerals at the ISA between 2013 and 2019, said that the ISA “is not fit to carry out an analysis of environmental impact assessment” and that the grounds on which the ISA authorized NORI to begin testing were questionable.
“Unfortunately, the [International] Seabed Authority is pro-mining,” Mulsow, who now works as a professor at Universidad Austral de Chile, said in an interview with Mongabay. “They’re not complying with the role of protecting the common heritage of humankind.”
A recent investigation by the New York Times revealed that the ISA gave TMC critical information over a 15-year period that allowed the company to access some of the most valuable seabed areas marked for mining, giving it an unfair advantage over other contractors.
The ISA has also frequently been criticized for its lack of transparency, including the fact that the LTC meets behind closed doors and provides few details about why it approves mining proposals. The ISA has previously granted dozens of exploratory mining licenses to contractors, although none have yet received an exploitation license. While NORI is not technically undertaking exploratory mining in this instance, their testing of mining equipment falls under exploration regulations.
Mongabay reported that transparency issues were even prominent during the ISA meetings that took place in July and August this year, including restrictions on participation and limited access to key information for civil society members.
The ISA did not respond to questions posed by Mongabay, instead deferring to the statement from Brekke, the LTC chair.
‘Full-blown mining in test form’
During the mining trial set to take place in the CCZ — which could begin as early as next week — NORI will be testing out its nodule collector vehicles and riser systems that will draw the nodules about 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) from the seabed to the surface. If NORI does begin exploitation in 2024, Gianni said the risers will be pumping about 10,000 metric tons of nodules up to a ship per day.
“That’s a hell of a lot,” Gianni said. “This is heavy duty machinery. This is piping that has to withstand considerable pressure.”
NORI intends to extract 1.3 million metric tons of wet nodules each year in the exploitation stage of its operation, TMC reported.
The Metals Company argues that this mining will provide minerals necessary to power a global shift toward clean energy. Indeed, demand for such minerals is growing as nations urge consumers to take up electric vehicles in an effort to combat climate change.
Mining opponents, however, have argued that renewable technologies like electric cars don’t actually need the minerals procured from mining.
Moreover, a growing cadre of scientists have been warning against the dangers of deep sea mining, arguing that we don’t know enough about deep sea environments to destroy them. What we do know about the deep sea suggests that mining could have far-reaching consequences, such as disturbing phytoplankton blooms at the sea’s surface, introducing toxic metals into marine food webs, and dispersing mining waste over long distances across the ocean — far enough to affect distant fisheries and delicate ecosystems like coral reefs and seamounts.
“Every time somebody goes and collects some sample in that area of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, there’s a new species coming up,” Mulsow said. “We don’t know how to name them, and we want to destroy them.”
TMC has stated that the testing activities will be monitored by “independent scientists from a dozen leading research institutions around the world.”
However, Hemphill of Greenpeace, who also has ISA observer status, questions whether the monitoring process will be unbiased.
“We’re thinking there’s a high chance that these risers might not work,” he said. “But if there’s not a third party observer out there, then we just have to rely on The Metals Company’s own recording.”
“It’s going to be basically a full-blown mining operation in test form, where they’re not only using the [collector] equipment, but they’re using the risers to bring the nodules to the surface,” Hemphill added.
Nodule collection trials like the one NORI is undertaking haven’t been conducted in the CCZ since the 1970s, TMC noted in its press release.
When Mongabay reached out to TMC for further information about its operation, a spokesperson for the company said that they “believe that polymetallic nodules are a compelling solution to the critical mineral supply challenges facing society in our transition away from fossil fuels.”
“While concern is justified as to the potential impacts of any source of metals — whether from land or sea — significant attention has been paid to mitigate these, including by setting aside more area for protection than is under license in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean,” the TMC spokesperson said.
‘No way back’
Mulsow said he was sure that this trial would pave the way for exploitation to start next year, not only giving TMC’s NORI access to the deep sea’s resources, but opening the gates for other contractors to begin similar operations.
“[In June] 2023, we will have … the application for the first mining license for the deep sea,” he said, “and then there will be no way back.”
Hemphill said he also feared the move would set a process into motion for mining to start next year — but added that Greenpeace would continue its fight to stop mining.
“We’re not giving up just because the two-year rule comes to pass,” he said. “And then if things get started, we’re in this for the long haul.”
Gianni said he was hopeful that the dynamic could also change at the next ISA meeting scheduled for November, in which delegates will get the chance to discuss whether they’re obligated to approve the start of mining the following year.
“The fact that the LTC has done this … may finally get council members to start saying, ‘Wait a minute, we need to bring this renegade fiefdom [at] the heart of the ISA structure under control,” Gianni said, “because they’re going off and deciding things in spite of all the reservations that are being expressed by the countries that are members of the ISA.”
Featured image and all other images, unless mentioned otherwise, were provided by Julia Barnes.
Editor’s note: Deep-sea mining is a sign of addiction. Only a culture driven by a death urge masquerading as a profit-production-motive could contemplate destroying some of the largest and most intact remaining habitats on Earth and call it “green.” One of the first companies that may begin deep sea mining is The Metals Company, headquartered in Vancouver, Canada. TMC plans to extract nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese from “polymetallic nodules” dredged from the deep seafloor in an area of international waters called the Clarion Clipperton Zone southwest of San Diego. The company claims that mining the oceans is less harmful to the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As a biocentric organization, Deep Green Resistance is opposed to deep-sea mining — and indeed, all industrial mining. Mining is the one of the most destructive industries on the planet in terms of habitat destruction, pollution, and social injustice. Modern industrial civilization is fully dependent on mining, and as an organization dedicated to dismantling industrial civilization, we oppose and will fight all industrial mining activities. We put the planet first.
This week, the International Seabed Authority, the intergovernmental body tasked with overseeing deep-sea mining in international waters, concluded its recent set of meetings, which ran from July 4 to Aug. 4, 2022.
The purpose of these meetings was to progress with negotiations of mining regulations, with a view that deep-sea mining will start in July 2023 after the Pacific island nation of Nauru triggered a rule that could obligate this to happen.
While many countries appear to support the rapid development of these regulations, an increasing number of other countries have expressed concern with this deadline, indicating a possible turn of events.
It starts with tiny deep-sea fragments — shark’s teeth or slivers of shell. Then, in a process thought to span millions of years, they get coated in layers of liquidized metal, eventually becoming solid, lumpy rocks that resemble burnt potatoes. These formations, known as polymetallic nodules, have caught the attention of international mining companies because of what they harbor: rich deposits of commercially sought-after minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese — the very metals that go into the batteries for renewable technologies like electric cars, wind turbines, and solar panels.
But while some experts say we must mine the deep sea to combat climate change, others warn against it, saying we know too little about the damage that seabed mining would cause to the ocean’s life-sustaining properties.
Actual extraction has yet to begin, but in June 2021, the small Pacific island country of Nauru pushed the world closer to this possibility by notifying the International Seabed Authority — the intergovernmental body that oversees mining in international waters — that it had triggered a two-year rule in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This rule would theoretically allow it to start mining in June 2023 under whatever mining rules are in place by then. Nauru itself doesn’t have a mining company with this interest, but it sponsors a subsidiary of Canada-based and U.S.-listed The Metals Company.
Since then, the ISA has been working to negotiate a set of regulations that would allow it to follow the two-year rule. But at the latest set of meetings that took place between July 4 and Aug. 4 in Kingston, Jamaica, progress on the mining code appears to have stalled, observers reported.
“Overall, the feeling in the room is that there’s now a majority of states that are recognizing that it’s unrealistic, unachievable, and would be highly irresponsible,” Emma Wilson, a conservation expert who attended the recent ISA meetings as a representative of the NGO OceanCare, told Mongabay.
Representatives from several countries, including Spain, Chile, New Zealand, Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Trinidad and Tobago, made the case that the mining regulations shouldn’t be rushed to meet the obligations of the two-year rule. Spain’s representative, for instance, said that “as a precaution, the time has come to take a break,” while Costa Rica’s representative said “because we are responsible for the Common Heritage of Humankind, for our peoples and for future generations, we must act with caution.” (The UNCLOS defines the seabed and its resources as “the common heritage of mankind.”)
However, other countries, such Australia, the U.K., Tonga, and Nauru itself, took the position that regulations should be approved without delay. Tonga’s representative said the nation stood “ready to support work of Authority and relevant bodies especially for completion of regulatory frameworks in [a] timely fashion while assuring due diligence where appropriate.” Even France stated that it was committed to adopting “a legal framework with rigorous environmental protections to ensure that harm to ecosystems in the marine environment is minimized.” This position seemed to be in contrast to President Emmanuel Macron’s statement at the U.N. Ocean Conference in Lisbon at the end of June that “we have to create the legal framework to stop high seas mining and not to allow new activities that endanger ecosystems.”
On July 25, Chile’s delegation presented a letter to the ISA Secretariat, requesting that a discussion about the two-year rule become an agenda item at the assembly portion of the meetings, which began on Aug. 1. But this request was ignored, OceanCare’s Wilson said. Instead, the ISA Secretariat relegated it to the end of the meeting in the “any other business” category, which “undermined it,” and the ISA Secretariat even closed the meetings a day early, she added.
“One thing that became very, very evident this week is that the ISA Secretariat is doing everything that it can to brush the conversation under the carpet about [whether] there is another possibility of not adopting the regulation,” Wilson said.
Mongabay previously reported on concerns about transparency at the recently concluded ISA meetings, including accusations that the ISA had restricted access to key information and hampered interactions between member states and civil society.
Despite the many setbacks, Matt Gianni, a political and policy adviser for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), told Mongabay that he was observing a change happening in the negotiations.
“There’s a broad recognition that unless something really surprising happens, these regulations are not only unlikely to be adopted by July 2023, but they’re probably not likely to be adopted for several years at least,” said Gianni, who attended the meetings as a representative of EarthWorks, an NGO that works to shield communities and the environment from the negative impacts of extractive activities.
Gianni added that the ISA council has also yet to agree upon the financial mechanisms under which mining could operate, which need to be put into place, in addition to the regulations, before the ISA can issue exploitation licenses. However, he said it’s still unclear whether deep-sea mining will officially be stalled.
“It’s a bit like the Titanic,” Gianni said. “We’re starting to see the rivets popping and the thing is slowly starting to turn. But is it going to miss the iceberg and head in the direction of protecting the marine environment? That’s still an open question.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
Editor’s note: Deep sea mining could begin in about a year. But opponents of deep sea mining are taking their arguments onto the world stage at the U.N. Ocean Conference in Portugal and increasing numbers of Pacific leaders have added their voice to deep sea mining. Palau, Fiji, and Samoa are the latest to call for a moratorium on the emerging industry, in the first governmental alliance of its kind. Also French President Emmanuel Macron says we have to create the legal framework to stop mining in the high seas and not allow activities that put in danger the ecosystems that depend on them. France joins the global call for a ban on deep sea mining.
At the U.N. Ocean Conference taking place this week in Lisbon, momentum has been building in support of a moratorium on deep sea mining, an activity projected to have far-reaching consequences for marine ecosystems, biodiversity, and global fisheries.
The Pacific island nation of Palau launched an alliance of countries that support a moratorium, which Fiji and Samoa subsequently joined.
A global network of parliamentarians has also banded together to support a moratorium and to look for a legal way to enforce it.
As things stand, deep sea mining could begin a year from now, with the International Seabed Authority, the body tasked with regulating the activity, drawing up the rules that would allow mining to commence.
LISBON — Should we mine the seabed, a part of the world rich in resources, but less mapped than the surface of the moon? A growing number of politicians, scientists and conservationists are saying that we shouldn’t — at least, not until we fully understand the consequences of doing so.
At an event on June 27 at the U.N. Ocean Conference (UNOC) in Lisbon, Surangel Whipps Jr., the president of the Pacific island nation of Palau, took to the podium to announce that his nation was launching an alliance of countries pushing for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
“Palau believes that in this instance, deep sea mining should be discouraged to the greatest extent possible,” Whipps said to a packed room. “Deep sea mining compromises the integrity of our ocean habitat that supports marine biodiversity and contributes to mitigating the impacts of climate change.”
Whipps was joined on stage by famous oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who said the risks of deep sea mining should be the “headline issue … of our time.”
“There is no way that we should be going forward now, or maybe ever, with tearing up these systems that we don’t know how to put back together again,” Earle said. “The greatest discovery perhaps of the 20th century about the ocean was discovering the magnitude of our ignorance.”
At the launch of the new alliance, the Pacific island nations of Fiji and Samoa also announced they would also be joining the coalition. The following day, Tuvalu and Guam expressed their support, although they have yet to formally join the alliance.
‘Different voices of concern’
Experts say they’re hopeful that others will come forward, if not this week at the UNOC, then in the weeks that follow.
Chile, for instance, recently called for a 15-year moratorium on deep-sea mining at the annual meeting of state parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) at the U.N. headquarters in New York, citing concerns about environmental damage and the lack of scientific data. However, Chile hasn’t yet joined the alliance either.
“There are different voices of concern who express their concern a little bit differently, but they’re all about slowing down because there’s no rush,” Jessica Battle, the lead on WWF’s deep-sea mining initiative, told Mongabay in an interview in Lisbon. “There really isn’t any rush.”
Sian Owen, the global coordinator for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a consortium of 90 international organizations working to protect the deep sea, said that while the alliance itself has no authority to force the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — the U.N.-linked agency charged with regulating deep-sea mining — to impose a moratorium, it does have the “authority of persuasion.”
“What this does, for the first time, is create a space where states and governments can come together and say, ‘Actually, we have some concerns about this idea of opening up a vast new extractive frontier in one of the last wildernesses on our planet,” Owen told Mongabay.
At a separate event at the UNOC on June 28, members of parliament and other leaders appealed to the global network of parliamentarians to sign a declaration that also calls for a moratorium. At the time of writing, the declaration had been signed by more than 70 individuals from 35 countries.
“On this issue of moratorium, we don’t see things moving fast enough,” Marie Toussaint, a member of the European Parliament who launched the declaration, told Mongabay in Lisbon. “But we also have to acknowledge the fact that it’s been only one year since the requests for exploiting the seabed [have been] presented.”
Toussaint added that she and other allies are currently working on a legal framework that would oblige the ISA to carry out the moratorium that many are calling for.
‘Potential sources of metal supply’
Interest in deep-sea mining began in the 1970s, then picked up again in the last two decades as nations explored the possibility of mining the seabed in their own coastal waters as well as the high seas, the areas of the ocean to which no country can claim jurisdiction. Then, in June 2021, the Pacific island nation of Nauru triggered an obscure rule embedded in the UNCLOS that requests the ISA to approve a plan for exploitation with whatever rules are currently in place within two years. That means that deep-sea mining could be set into motion in about a year’s time from now.
The company positioned to benefit the most from this early start is Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of the Canadian-owned The Metals Company (TMC), formerly known Deep Green. TMC, which is a publicly traded company listed on the NASDAQ exchange, has long argued that it is necessary to mine the deep sea to procure minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese to help the world transition to electric cars and other renewable technologies. These minerals can be found in abundance in the ocean’s abyssal plains in the form of potato-sized rock concretions known as polymetallic nodules. TMC and other companies have their eyes on a part of the ocean known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean, roughly between Hawai‘i and Mexico, which harbors vast quantities of these nodules.
“Expected metal shortages will derail the energy transition,” Gerard Barron, TMC’s chairman and CEO, who was not at the UNOC, told Mongabay in an email. “We owe it to the planet and people living on it, to stay calm, consider all potential sources of metal supply and compare the lifecycle impacts of our options on a project-by-project basis. Indeed, as the world’s largest source of battery metals, it would be unethical not to fully explore nodules as a solution.”
Many industrialized nations are working toward a swift transition to electric vehicles. For instance, the European Union has just approved a plan to end the sale of combustion-engine vehicles by 2035 in a bid to lower its carbon emissions. In the U.S., the Biden administration also announced in 2021 a plan for half of all new vehicles sold to be electric by 2030.
While there is increased demand for electric cars, WWF’s Battle said renewable technologies are quickly evolving to not require minerals sourced from the deep sea, with many innovators preferring to source metals from the circulator economy — that is, recycling it from electronic waste.
“This move to stop this industry from happening … will also accelerate the move to go circular because of the fact that there will be less new minerals coming into circulation, and then the economy is forced to go circular,” Battle said. “If you put more new resources in, there’s less incentive to think about how you can use existing resources.”
Several large car companies, including BMW, Renault, Volkswagen, and Volvo Group, have already pledged not to use any metals from the seabed.
Critics of deep sea mining also say that sourcing metals from the deep sea could destroy ecosystems that have taken millions of years to form, irreversibly harm marine biodiversity, and disrupt global fisheries.
‘An uphill battle’
The ISA, the body mandated to both protect the seabed and ensure equal access to its resources, seems to support the launch of deep-sea mining. When Nauru triggered the two-year rule, the ISA scheduled a series of meetings to help finalize the mining code that would allow exploitation to begin, despite a slew of warnings from scientists and other experts about the dangers associated with mining.
Critics of the ISA also say the body is skewed toward mining rather than conservation, and for that reason, they say the ISA is “not fit for purpose.” Concerns have also been raised about the lack of transparency of the ISA’s activities and decision-making processes.
Yet the ISA presents a position of environmental stewardship. Michael Lodge, the ISA’s secretary-general, speaking at an interactive dialogue at an official event at the U.N. Ocean Conference on June 29, said the ISA would “regulate all related activities and in doing so applying the highest possible environmental standards using the best scientific evidence to create global standards which will form a benchmark for the rest of the world.”
Another speaker at the dialogue, Alex Herman, the seabed minerals commissioner of the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority, the group overseeing mining in that territory’s waters, said seabed mining offers many “untapped possibilities.” She also appealed to other Pacific nations to unite in support of this activity.
“Our Pacific leaders have long held our commitment to working together,” Herman said. “Moving forward as a collective has proven time and again that we can resolve the most complex issues through open and frank discussions.”
‘A flood of support’
While deep sea mining has not yet begun, the ISA is proceeding with its plans to approve a set of rules that would allow it to begin. At the same time, conservationists say support for a moratorium is gaining strength.
“I’m very hopeful,” Owen said. “I feel like we’ve got a momentum, it’s picking up speed, and there’s this collective sense of urgency of learning from the past, of not making the same mistakes, of taking nature for granted, and of actually evaluating the ecosystem functions and valuing what the ocean in a healthy state brings to us.”
Phil McCabe, the Pacific liaison for the DSCC, said he believes there’s been a “seismic shift in the political landscape” in terms of support for a moratorium at the UNOC.
“We are in dialogue with a number of other states [and] it’s all tracking towards a flood of support behind this moratorium, not only from the Pacific [but from] Latin American countries, European countries,” McCabe told Mongabay in Lisbon.
He added: “We all know what the right thing is here.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.