The world’s oceans are under siege. Not only is their resilience being severely tested by the well-documented impacts of climate change, overfishing and pollution, but a little-known industry is on the cusp of irreversibly harming what is often described as the planet’s last frontier: our deep oceans.
Enticed by minerals, a handful of companies and governments are driving the development of regulations by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) that would permit the mining of the deep-sea floor. This speculative rush flies in the face both of science urging a precautionary approach and concerns about the impacts of mining on already-stressed ocean ecosystems. Unable to address these concerns with credible data, companies are increasingly turning to marketing and public relations.
To date, the ISA has issued 30 licences for mineral exploration covering millions of square kilometres, typically at depths greater than 3 kilometres. More than half are for rocks on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean known as polymetallic nodules. These provide breeding grounds and habitats for an abundance of creatures uniquely adapted to life in the deep. Not only would these species and their habitat be ravaged by deep-sea mining, but the interconnections between deep and shallower waters would also be disrupted. Research is just starting to shed light on the dynamics of currents, nutrients, carbon, the species that move among them – and the consequences of interfering with these natural cycles.
To date, no commercial deep-sea mining has occurred – and a wide cross-section of society hopes to keep it that way. Scientists, legal experts, national and international governments, local communities, high-profile conservationists and non-governmental organisations have called for either a moratorium or a complete ban on deep-sea mining. However, widespread public awareness, let alone debate, is lacking.
Stacked against this is a handful of countries and companies very focused on mining the sea floor and impatient at the delays in the ISA’s proceedings caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Gerard Barron, chairman and CEO of DeepGreen Metals, has threatened to trigger an ISA rule that would allow mining to start in two years regardless of ISA’s progress on regulating exploitation. There is concern that other companies may follow, opening up our oceans to the largest unregulated extractive project in history. This attitude demonstrates neither respect for international processes, for the concerns expressed by society or for the impacts likely to be borne by the islands in the Pacific that have sponsored exploration contracts.
This mentality of resource extraction and constant economic growth is at the heart of the current climate crisis.
In fact, a key reaction from deep-sea mining supporters to the concerns raised is an increasingly slick public relations campaign. Company promotions use words like “harvesting” to distance their intended operations from the harsh consequences of “mining”. Their pristine visual representations show machines harmlessly sucking up rocks that apparently only serve to clutter a barren sea floor devoid of life. These images misrepresent the destructive reality of what would effectively be the strip-mining of the ocean floor and its inhabitants, generating plumes of sediment churned up by machines and discharged as waste.
Deep-sea mining companies are fond of boasting that their operations will produce no tailings – the waste materials from mining which are a key environmental impact of mining on land. However, the marine mining equivalent will be 24/7 discharge of wastewater laden with sediment after preliminary processing by a surface support vessel. This would contain unknown quantities of heavy metals that could contaminate marine food webs and commercially valuable fisheries.
The deep-sea mining industry is peddling several other arguments that simply don’t add up:
“Deep-sea mining is essential to provide the metals needed for a clean energy future”
Companies present their industry as socially conscious, and scientifically prepared. They argue deep-sea mining is essential for the technologies to transition society to zero-carbon emissions and cite increasing demand and population growth to justify mining the sea floor.
However, this mentality of resource extraction and constant economic growth is at the heart of the current climate crisis. Sustainable renewable energy will require structural adjustments: reduction in metals consumption, improved terrestrial mining practices, a recycling-based circular economy grounded in “cradle to cradle” product design, and a globally just energy future. Research suggests that a transition towards a 100% renewable energy supply can take place without deep-sea mining. Furthermore, mining the deep is likely to undermine the recycling and production innovations required for clean-energy transitions.
Indeed, UNEP’s practical guidance for finance institutions on sustainable ocean finance, released in March, clearly notes that deep-sea mining is not a sustainable investment option. In an outright challenge to the industry’s spin, global companies BMW, Volvo, Google and Samsung are leading a business call for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
“The environmental impacts of deep-sea mining are minimal compared to terrestrial mines”
This is an apples and pears comparison. It fails to meet the requirements of a cost-benefit analysis to identify the social and environmental risks of a practice and to value the ecosystem goods and services provided by the deep-sea and the broader marine ecosystems that mining would impact.
The only cost-benefit study of deep-sea mining noted that it was “not technically feasible” to replace the services provided by the deep-sea ecosystems. And indeed, these services are already perilously close to collapse due to climate change, acidification, pollution and overfishing.
Scientists have warned that deep-sea mining will cause an undeniable net loss of biodiversity, light, sound and chemical pollution, and the potential for plumes to smother biota and contaminate food webs. Deep-sea environments are extremely slow to recover and the remediation or offsetting of mining impacts is not considered to be feasible.
“Economic and social benefits will accrue to small island states that participate in deep-sea mining”
Several small island states with limited opportunities for industry and income have been persuaded by promises of benefits to either sponsor deep-sea mining exploration in areas beyond national jurisdiction under the ISA, or to progress towards mining within their own waters. Demands of their civil societies for transparency regarding contract arrangements, environmental impacts and benefits have not been met and companies have not substantiated their claims of benefit.
Nautilus Minerals also promised such benefits to the people of Papua New Guinea but with the company’s bankruptcy, the Papua New Guinea government and other investors now carry a heavy debt burden; though the country and its communities have been given a reprieve from the far greater costs of deep-sea mining itself.
The stakes are high especially in the Pacific where existing ocean-based industries, cultural practices and livelihoods are at risk should mining proceed. Recognising this and appealing to their longstanding role as ocean custodians, Pacific civil society, including the influential Pacific Council of Churches, demands a global ban on deep-sea mining.
So will we see the robust and wide-ranging debate that this emerging industry warrants? There is a fast-closing window of opportunity to halt the rush of a small number of individuals and companies to exploit our deep seabeds. Governments have a responsibility to consult with their citizenry and enact the will of their people both nationally and internationally at the ISA. In the meantime, no further deep-sea mining exploration licences should be approved, and work towards finalising regulations to allow mining must cease. Governments and intergovernmental bodies also have a responsibility to clean up the social and environmental performance of existing land-based mines and to seriously embark on urban mining and circular economy principles before they allow companies to ransack the world’s last frontier.