Editor’s Note: We are witnessing the results of a culture in overshoot. Having extracted everything that is easily accessible on land, corporations are turning to the remote depths of the ocean in search of profitable metals. The fact that deep sea mining is being considered is proof that this way of life can’t last. Industrial mining will, of course, come to an end. And the world will be far better off if the mining is stopped before it destroys the ocean rather than after.
While the fight against deep sea mining has largely focused on areas beyond national jurisdiction, there are many national projects, like the one in Norway, that require opposition.
A living ocean is far more valuable than the metals that can be extracted from it.
Norway is moving forward with plans to mine its continental shelf to procure minerals critical for renewable energy technologies. However, some scientists, members of civil society and even industry leaders have raised concerns about Norway’s proposal, arguing that deep sea mining in this part of the ocean could cause widespread environmental harm.
The nation’s Ministry of Petroleum and Energy has proposed opening up a 329,000-square-kilometer (127,000-square-mile) portion of the Norwegian Sea to deep sea mining, an area nearly the size of Germany. The region overlaps with many marine areas previously flagged by Norwegian research institutes and government agencies as vulnerable or valuable. A study by the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD), a government agency responsible for regulating petroleum resources, found that this area holds significant quantities of minerals such as magnesium, cobalt, copper, nickel and rare-earth metals. Investigators found these minerals on manganese crusts on seamounts and sulfide deposits on active, inactive or extinct hydrothermal vents at depths of 700-4,000 meters (2,296-13,123 feet).
A sliver of this proposed mining area is within Norway’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The rest falls across the adjoining continental shelf — the gently sloping seabed stretching out from Norway’s mainland into the ocean — in international waters beyond Norway’s jurisdiction. However, Norway gained access to the continental shelf that borders its EEZ in 2009 after filing an application with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a U.N. body that manages extended access to the nations’ continental shelves. Norway’s access applies only to the seabed, not the water column or surface waters above the continental shelf.
In 2021, the Norwegian government began working on a mining impact assessment and released it for public consultation in October 2022. It received more than 1,000 responses, most from individuals, research institutes, environment agencies and other groups expressing opposition to Norway’s deep-sea mining plans.
One response came from the Norway Environment Agency, a government bureau under the Ministry of Climate and Environment. The agency raised several issues with the impact assessment, including that it did not provide adequate information about how mining could be done safely and sustainably. The agency argued that this omission violates the country’s Seabed Minerals Act, a legal framework created in 2019 for surveying and extracting minerals on the Norwegian continental shelf.
Now that the public consultation process has finished, the decision whether to open Norway’s EEZ and continental shelf to deep sea mining sits with the federal government. If the government does open the area, Norway could become one of the first nations to initiate deep-sea mining in its nearby waters. A few other countries, including China, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands and New Zealand, have explored starting similar projects, but none have begun full-scale exploitation. According to the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority, a government agency responsible for regulating seabed minerals, the country has issued exploration licenses to obtain “the information necessary to inform future decisions about whether it will allow mining to commence in line with the precautionary approach.” In the case of New Zealand, its supreme court blocked a proposed seabed mining operation in 2021, generating a major stumbling block for the industry.
‘Enormous supply gap’
Walter Sognnes, the CEO of Loke Marine Minerals, one of three companies looking to mine Norway’s continental shelf, said he believes the deep sea is key to supplying the “increasing demand” for critical minerals. Loke is aiming to mine manganese crusts that occur on seamounts on Norway’s continental shelf, believed to hold cobalt and rare-earth metals worth billions of dollars.
“We need to solve this enormous supply gap that is coming … and we think deep-sea minerals are the right way to go,” Sognnes told Mongabay.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), today’s mineral supply will fall short of what’s needed to transform the energy sector, resulting in a delayed and more expensive transition to renewable technologies. A recent study in Nature Communications likewise suggested that demand will escalate as countries work to replace gas-combustion vehicles with electric ones. For instance, it suggested that if nations aim to make all vehicles electric by 2050, the global demand will increase by 7,513% for lithium, 5,426% for nickel, 2,838% for manganese and 2,684% for cobalt. The study also pointed out that most of these critical minerals were available only in “a few politically unstable countries such as Chile, Congo, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa.”
While environmental experts argue that industries can obtain minerals through means such as battery recycling, Sognnes said he doesn’t think that will become a viable option for at least a couple of decades.
Mineral supply chains can also be complicated by geopolitical tensions with countries like China and Russia, which currently generate many critical minerals, Sogness said.
“You have to look at the alternatives,” he said. “We believe that if you apply the best technology and work together [to protect] the environment, deep sea minerals can be a better alternative, both on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) rating, but also on the geopolitical side, you can have a resource that makes us less dependent on China.”
An ESG rating is a measure of how well a company addresses environmental, social and governance risks.
Sognnes said if Norway does open its continental shelf, Loke would not begin mining until early in the 2030s. He said it would first be necessary to map and explore the seabed and develop the best possible technologies. Loke plans to use excavation tools, thrusters and pumps to “scrape” the manganese crusts then transport them to a collection vessel.
Some researchers have suggested that plumes generated from deep sea mining extraction could be highly destructive by distributing sediment and dissolved metals across large swaths of the ocean, which would threaten organisms and introduce heavy metals into the pelagic food chain. However, Sognnes said he does not expect Loke’s crust cutting and collection to generate plumes.
Loke also recently acquired UK Seabed Resources (UKSR), a deep sea mining firm formerly owned by U.S. global security company Lockheed Martin. This acquisition has given Loke full ownership of two exploration licenses and partial ownership of another in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean. This proposed mining would focus on extracting polymetallic nodules, which are potato-shaped rocks containing critical minerals like manganese, nickel, cobalt and copper. Since the CCZ is located in international waters beyond any nations’ jurisdictions, mining activities there are regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a U.N.-affiliated body tasked with protecting the marine environment while ensuring nations receive equal access to minerals.
While the ISA has yet to issue an exploitation license for deep sea mining, it is working to finalize a set of regulations that could allow mining to start as early as next year — a move that has garnered criticism from governments, civil society organizations, research institutes and many other individuals and groups. Those in opposition say that not enough is known about the deep sea to accurately assess the impacts of mining, and that mining technology is not advanced enough to minimize harm. Additionally, critics say what is known about the deep sea suggests that mining could cause irreversible harm to habitats and species that are essential to the functioning of the ocean.
Some nations and delegates to the ISA are calling for a “precautionary pause” or a moratorium on deep sea mining until more research is conducted on the deep sea and the possible impacts of mining. France has even called for an outright ban.
Norway, an ISA council member, has generally supported swiftly completing the international mining regulations but stated at recent ISA meetings that no mining should proceed without the “necessary knowledge about ecosystems.”
Other Norwegian companies looking to mine in Norway include ADEPTH Minerals and Green Minerals. While Norwegian energy company Equinor previously expressed interest in deep-sea mining, the company called for a “precautionary approach” during the public consultation, saying experts must have sufficient time to properly understand the possible environmental consequences of deep-sea mining.
‘Too quick and too big’
Peter Haugan, a scientist who serves as policy director of Norway’s Institute of Marine Research and director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Bergen, said the Norwegian government should not rush mining in the country’s continental shelf.
“Jumping right into mining and opening big areas for exploration first with the implication that there will be mining is a bit too quick and too big,” Haugan told Mongabay. “Normally, when we think about new industries that may be moving into areas in the ocean, we typically take small steps.”
Haugan said that while some academic research has been conducted on features like hydrothermal vents in the proposed mining area, more is needed to understand this deep-sea environment, the water column and the organisms that live there. Before mining is allowed to proceed, he said researchers need to conduct extensive baseline studies to understand the impacts for both the mining area and the wider environment, which would be hard to do within short timespans.
“It’s very difficult to imagine that a single company getting a license for a small area will be prepared to do the environmental baseline that is needed in their area and in the surrounding areas, which may be affected and which may have connected ecosystems,” Haugan said.
According to an assessment by the Institute of Marine Research, there is a lack of information for 99% of the proposed mining area.
Kaja Lønne Fjærtoft, a marine biologist and global policy lead at WWF, told Mongabay it’s difficult to “nail down the actual consequence” of deep-sea mining on the Norwegian shelf without more knowledge of the environment, technology and mining impacts. Based on what is known, she said there is concern that mining manganese crusts or sulfide deposits could have widespread effects on species through the destruction of habitat, generation of harmful plumes and noise pollution. (Sognnes of Loke, however, said his company’s proposed operations would not target unique habitats or generate plumes and would produce minimal noise.)
Norway’s plans also raise several transboundary concerns. For one, mining activities could impact fisheries operating in the water above the extended continental shelf, Fjærtoft said.
“We don’t have exclusive rights to fisheries above it, so the mining that could happen in the seabed could impact international fisheries because most of the [proposed mining] areas are also in areas where like the U.K. would be fishing, the EU would be fishing,” she said. “And that’s not really accounted very well for in the impact assessment.”
According to 2019 data, the U.K. and several EU countries fish in the proposed deep sea mining area, targeting species like shrimp, cod, sole, haddock and mussels.
Norway submitted its impact assessment to Denmark and Iceland in accordance with the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment, which requires parties to disclose if activities could cause transboundary environmental harm. Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency wrote a letter to the Norwegian Environment Agency, arguing that the mining’s possible effects on seabirds and marine mammals have not been thoroughly investigated, according to documents reviewed by Mongabay.
Another issue is that part of Norway’s proposed mining area falls across the continental shelf of Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The Svalbard Treaty, which 48 countries have ratified, recognizes Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard but also specifies that parties have equal rights to engage in commercial activities there. However, in a letter viewed by Mongabay, Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs informed the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the exploitation of any mineral resources on Svalbard’s continental shelf was “subject to the provisions of the Svalbard Treaty, including the principle of equality.” In other words, Norway couldn’t claim sole ownership of these resources.
“If Norway actually goes ahead with extraction of seabed minerals, it will be the first time the Svalbard Treaty — in terms of extractive seabed resources, including oil and gas — is tested in that region,” Fjærtoft said. “This will set precedent for future potential oil and gas extraction in this area.”
Fjærtoft also argues that Norway’s plans for deep sea mining contradict its commitments as a founding member of the Ocean Panel, a global initiative that aims to help member nations “sustainably manage” 100% of their national marine waters by 2025.
In a paper, the Ocean Panel stated that nations should take a precautionary approach to deep-sea mining and that regulations and knowledge should be in place by 2030 to “to ensure that any activity related to seabed mining is informed by science and ecologically sustainable.”
More recently, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, the current head of the Ocean Panel, said in an interview with a Norwegian paper in March that deep-sea mining can be one of three sustainable ocean actions Norway can set in motion and that deep-sea mining could be done in a way that doesn’t harm marine biodiversity. Støre’s comments garnered criticism from environmental NGOs.
Haugan, who serves as co-chair of the Ocean Panel’s Expert Group, said the Norwegian government’s course technically satisfies the panel’s “not very precise” statement directing a precautionary approach to deep sea mining. However, he said he was still concerned about how quickly things were moving.
“There is a real fear that the quality and quantity of those environmental investigations will not be sufficient,” Haugan said. “And therefore, there’s this big danger that this will run off and lead to inappropriate actions in the deep sea.”
What happens next?
Amund Vik, state secretary of Norway’s Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, the body forwarding the proposal to mine, told Mongabay the impact assessment, consultation impact and resource report from NPD “will form an important part of the decision basis on whether to open areas” to deep-sea mining. However, he emphasized that a decision to open the area wouldn’t necessarily result in commercial activities. Vik also said the government will submit a white paper about the issue to parliament in “spring.”
“A comprehensive permitting regime has been established in Norwegian legislation, and this regime is based upon a stepwise approach to allowing commercial activities to take place,” Vik said in an emailed statement. “Seabed mineral activities will only take place if it can be done in a prudent and sustainable manner.”
However, Fjærtoft said she believes if and when the Norwegian government does approve the opening of the proposed mining area, commercial activities could quickly begin. The nation’s Seabed Minerals Act specifies that companies may immediately apply for exploitation licenses alongside exploration licenses. According to Fjærtoft, companies are likely to opt for exploitation licenses because they confer exclusive rights to an area; exploration licenses, on the other hand, are nonexclusive.
“Norway could be the first country to give an exploitation license,” Fjærtoft said. “If they do that, that is heavily criticizable because you definitely do not have enough knowledge to be able to assess anything on the impact of exploitation. You don’t even have enough to assess impacts of exploration.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior 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 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.
Editor’s note: Already threatened by overfishing, acidification, overheating, the collapse of coral reefs, declining plankton populations, plastic pollution, and deep sea oil drilling, the world’s oceans now face a new threat: mining, disguised as “green.”
“To build a green future, in the next couple of decades the world will need to mine more metal than we’ve mined in our entire history” says Gerard Barron, CEO of The Metals Company.
There’s some truth to that statement – if we wish to meet the rising demand for new technologies, we’d need to see a sharp increase in metal extraction. After all, electric vehicles require 4x the amount of metals found in standard cars, and a single wind turbine requires 340 tonnes of metal.
Here’s the problem: the ‘green future’ he’s selling us is a lie, because what Barron fails to divulge in his upbeat sales pitch, is the ecological upheaval that his company’s plans would surely wreak.
The Metals Company plans to mine the seabed for polymetallic nodules; potato-sized objects containing metals like nickel, copper, and cobalt; essential in the production of the lithium-ion batteries being used for electric cars and (so-called) renewable energy storage.
They’re located (among other places) in the Clarion-Clipperton zone, an area of the Pacific Ocean equivalent in size to the entire Indian Subcontinent. The seabed here (despite the claims of company officials) isn’t simply a ‘vast marine desert’, it’s home to a wide variety of species whose existence depends upon the presence of these nodules.
So, what would the mining process actually look like?
They’re building house-sized machines which would indiscriminately vacuum-up the contents of the seabed and send it to a ship on the surface. This includes an estimated 2 to 6 million cubic feet of marine sediment (granulated rock) per day for every machine in operation, only then to be subsequently dumped right back into the ocean.
It’s been stated that the sediment will be returned to a depth below 1200m. That’s called the Bathypelagic zone (Midnight Zone) – and some animals who live there include viperfish, anglerfish, frill sharks, eels, and sperm whales. These would be among the first creatures to acquire a gill-full of gravel.
But furthermore, the floating particles could be carried throughout the entire water column by powerful currents in a natural process called ‘downwelling’ & ‘upwelling’ – damaging (perhaps fatally) the respiratory systems of billions of fish.
This, plus the impact that light & sound disturbances from mining equipment would have on creatures adapted to conditions of silence & darkness, raises the likelihood of ecosystem collapse. Ocean ecosystems are already threatened by multiple stressors like overfishing, ocean acidification, & plastic pollution – do we really want to add anything else to the list?
The Metals Company claims that seabed extraction is a more ‘sustainable’ method of sourcing metal than land-based mining. Whenever anyone pulls-out the ‘sustainability’ buzzword, two premises need to be addressed:
#1: what are they sustaining? – clearly not biodiversity.
#2: how long do they wish to sustain it for?
The answer to the first question: an industrial way of life. The way of life which propels us to greedily squander nature’s bounty.
The answer to the second question: for as long as there’s anything left of the living world to convert into commodities.
This isn’t about saving the planet. It’s about creating new technologies which will prolong & exacerbate the destruction of the planet, and a false narrative that this is all somehow morally justifiable. Here’s a basic rule: if we consume the Earth at a rate faster than it can regenerate – eventually there won’t be anything left to take. Even Gregory Stone (chief scientist at The Metals Company) acknowledges this:
“On-land commodities are being exhausted…and [the deep sea] is the natural next place to look…these are some of the last resources that the Earth has to give us”.
Are we really prepared to blow-through everything that’s left? To leave no stone (or nodule) left unturned, just so that we can continue driving around in cars & tooting our horns?
The ends don’t really justify the means. Any right-minded, white westerner can reflect upon the cruelty of the transatlantic slave trade and conclude: “Yikes, my ancestors should’ve left the people of West Africa alone”.
Jazz music probably wouldn’t have existed without the transatlantic slave trade. Do I like jazz music? Sure, but you know what I like better? Thriving communities living in environments to which they’re socially and biologically adapted.
Communities like the ocean-dwelling phytoplankton who generate 80% of the Earth’s oxygen, who play a crucial role in atmospheric carbon regulation, and whose future hangs in the balance should deep-sea mining go ahead.
So, what can we do to stop this from happening?
The country of Nauru, which (having signed a contract with The Metals Company) would stand to benefit financially from deep sea mining, have declared that operations will go ahead in 2024, within waters assigned to them by the ISA (International Seabed Authority) – that means we have about two years to stop this.
So far, campaigners such as Greenpeace, WWF, and the government of Fiji have collaborated on a proposed 10-year moratorium (temporary ban) on deep sea mining until more is known about its effects on deep sea ecosystems.
Going a step further, organisations like Blue Planet Society and Pacific Blue Line are calling for an outright ban.
You (the reader) can help by educating yourself more on the subject, by spreading awareness, by signing online petitions, and by joining or organizing demonstrations against deep sea mining…but before you go and do those things, let me finish with a final appeal:
As environmentalists, we might not instinctively care quite as much about the deep sea as we do about other landscapes like rainforests or prairies. We’re land mammals after all; we don’t belong down there, and neither should we strive to assimilate. However, it’s important that we look beyond our human bias, because the deep sea comprises 60% of Earth’s surface. This means that the wellbeing of the ocean is crucial for the wellbeing of the planet as a whole.
Industrialists can’t understand this. They look upon the deep sea as a challenge, as another frontier just waiting to be conquered, and none of the native beings who live there will stand in their way.
We can stand in their way.
Help to stop deep sea mining, before it starts.
Joshua Clinton is a long-term environmental devotee, campaign organizer, & freelance writer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
World congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calling for reforms to the International Seabed Authority (ISA). “Deep seabed mining is an avoidable environmental disaster,” said one expert on global ocean policy.
Featured image: A pair of fish swim near the ocean floor off the coast of Mauritius. A motion calling for an end to deep sea mining of minerals was adopted at the world congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature this week. (Photo: Roman Furrer/Flickr/cc)
A vote overwhelmingly in favor of placing a moratorium on deep sea mineral mining at a global biodiversity summit this week has put urgent pressure on the International Seabed Authority to strictly regulate the practice.
The vast majority of governments, NGOs, and civil society groups voted in favor of the moratorium at the world congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on Wednesday, after several conservation groups lobbied in favor of the measure.
“Member countries of the ISA, including France which hosted this Congress, need to wake up and act on behalf of civil society and the environment now, and take action in support of a moratorium.”
—Matthew Gianni, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition
Eighty-one government and government agencies voted for the moratorium, while 18 opposed it and 28, including the United Kingdom, abstained from voting. Among NGOs and other organizations, 577 supported the motion while fewer than three dozen opposed it or abstained.
Deep sea mining for deposits of copper, nickel, lithium, and other metals can lead to the swift loss of entire species that live only on the ocean floor, as well as disturbing ecosystems and food sources and putting marine life at risk for toxic spills and leaks.
Fauna and Flora International, which sponsored the moratorium along with other groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Synchronicity Earth, called the vote “a momentous outcome for ocean conservation.”
The motion called for a moratorium on mining for minerals and metals near the ocean floor until environmental impact assessments are completed and stakeholders can ensure the protection of marine life, as well as calling for reforms to the International Seabed Authority (ISA)—the regulatory body made up of 167 nations and the European Union, tasked with overseeing “all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area for the benefit of mankind as a whole.”
In June, a two-year deadline was set for the ISA to begin licensing commercial deep sea mining and to finalize regulations for the industry by 2023.
“Member countries of the ISA, including France which hosted this Congress, need to wake up and act on behalf of civil society and the environment now, and take action in support of a moratorium,” said Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, in a statement.
The World Wide Fund for Nature, another cosponsor of the motion, called on the ISA to reject the deep sea mining industry’s claims that mining for metals on the ocean floor is a partial solution to the climate crisis.
“The pro-deep seabed mining lobby is… selling a story that companies need deep seabed minerals in order to produce electric cars, batteries and other items that reduce carbon emissions,” said Jessica Battle, a senior expert on global ocean policy and governance at the organization. “Deep seabed mining is an avoidable environmental disaster. We can decarbonize through innovation, redesigning, reducing, reusing, and recycling.”
Pippa Howard of Fauna and Flora International wrote ahead of the IUCN summit that “we need to shatter the myth that deep seabed mining is the solution to the climate crisis.”
“Far from being the answer to our dreams, deep seabed mining could well turn out to be the stuff of nightmares,” she wrote. “Deep seabed mining—at least as it is currently conceived—would be an utterly irresponsible and short-sighted idea. In the absence of any suitable mitigation techniques… deep-sea mining should be avoided entirely until that situation changes.”