‘A huge mistake’: alarm bells ring as deep-sea mining negotiations progress

Deep-sea mining may start as early as 2023 after Pacific Island nation Nauru triggered a two-year rule in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that could allow its sponsored company to start mining, with regulations currently in place.

Oil Rig_Scotland
Oil rig supply boats are seen traversing the Aberdeen Anchorage Point in Scotland. Image: Rab Lawrence, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

With a four-page letter, the Pacific island nation of Nauru pushed the world closer to a reality in which large-scale mining doesn’t just take place on land, but also in the open ocean. In July 2021, President Lionel Aingimea wrote to the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN-affiliated organisation tasked with managing deep-sea mining activities, to say it intended to make use of a rule embedded in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that could jump-start seabed mining in two years.

Since then, the ISA, which is responsible for protecting the ocean while encouraging deep-sea mining development, has been scrambling to come up with regulations that would determine how mining can proceed in the deep sea.

At meetings that took place in December 2021, delegates debated how to push forward with these regulations, currently in draft form, and agreed to schedule a series of additional meetings to accelerate negotiations. At the latest meetings, which concluded last week in Kingston, Jamaica, delegates continued to discuss mining regulations, eyeing the goal of finalizing regulations by July 2023 so that seabed mining can proceed.

Less than 1 per cent of the deep-sea floor has ever been seen by human eyes or with the camera. That means that for huge portions of our planet, we cannot answer that extremely basic question of what lives there, much less questions about how it functions and the role that it plays related to us.

Diva J. Amon, director, SpeSeas

Observers at the recent meetings reported that while many states seemed eager to push ahead, there was also a growing chorus of concerns. For instance, many states and delegates noted that there wasn’t enough science to determine the full impacts of deep-sea mining, and there isn’t currently a financial plan in place to compensate for environmental loss.

The observers said there were also increasing worries about the lack of transparency within the ISA as it steers blindfolded toward mining in a part of the ocean we know very little about.

‘Huge portions of our planet’

Since the rise of oceanography in the 1870s, Western scientists have been probing the deep ocean with trawling nets, acoustic devices, and submersibles, trying to unlock its secrets. But even after about 150 years of science, we still know remarkably little about the abyssal depths of the sea.

Recent expeditions to the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a key region earmarked for mining exploitation, found that 70-90 per cent of collected species were completely new to science. Another study estimated that we only know about one-third of all multi-cell organisms that live on the seafloor.

“Unfortunately, much less than 1 per cent of the deep-sea floor has ever been seen by human eyes or with the camera,” Diva J. Amon, director of Trinidad-and-Tobago-based SpeSeas, a marine conservation nonprofit, told Mongabay. “That means that for huge portions of our planet, we cannot answer that extremely basic question of what lives there, much less questions about how it functions and the role that it plays related to us and the planet’s habitability and also about how it might be impacted.”

Yet mining companies and their sponsoring states have set their sights on three deep-sea environments: abyssal plains, seamounts, and hydrothermal vents, which are rich in minerals like manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and zinc.

Much of this interest is focused on the abyssal plains of the CCZ, a 4.5-million-square-kilometer (1.7-million-square-mile) area that fans out between Hawai‘i and Mexico, where there are substantial deposits of polymetallic nodules — potato-shaped rocks that contain high concentrations of these sought-after minerals.

Those in favor of mining say it’s necessary to extract minerals from the deep sea in order to fuel the global shift toward renewable technologies such as electric cars, even though not all green technologies require these minerals. In Nauru’s letter to the ISA, the president referenced the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit).

He suggested that deep-sea mining could help large economies like the United States and the European Union “overhaul and decarbonise their energy and transportation systems,” while supporting Nauru’s own economy against the increasing threat of climate change, to which the island nation is particularly vulnerable. Pro-mining lobbyists have also suggested that it has become even more necessary to mine the seabed due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupting mineral supply chains.

While mining companies like The Metals Company (TMC), which is sponsored by Nauru, have provided assurances that they will work to ensure minimal environmental impact, others say that mining could cause an unprecedented amount of harm not only to the mining sites themselves, but also to a wider area of the ocean.

According to a new paper led by Amon, mining 500,000 km2 (193,000 mi2) of the CCZ would actually impact an area three times larger — the combined size of Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium and Germany — with noise and sediment plumes. Not only that, but the three-dimensional nature of deep-sea mining operations in the CCZ means the impact could extend into the water column, disrupting 6.4 million cubic kilometers (1.5 million cubic miles), which is three times the volume of the Himalaya Mountains, according to the paper.

In another recent study published in Marine Policy, Amon and 30 other authors say there are still many scientific gaps in understanding the deep sea and the potential impacts of mining, leading them to conclude that mining cannot go ahead until these gaps are filled.

“When you mine the seafloor, do we have enough information on how the sediment plumes are going to impact?” Peter Edwards, a co-author of the Marine Policy paper and an officer with Pew Charitable Trusts’ conservation science program, told Mongabay. “Is there enough information on the water noise impacts? All of these are unclear.”

Lack of science, lack of transparency

These scientific gaps were brought up in a number of different contexts throughout the recent ISA meetings, said Matt Gianni, another co-author of the Marine Policy paper, adviser to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), and virtual attendee at the recent ISA meetings.

“There was a greater recognition, albeit not on the part of a majority of countries, but at least a number of countries were more outspoken about the gaps in the scientific knowledge that … exists over what the impacts will be of mining — the extent of the impacts, the scope of the impacts, and so forth,” Gianni told Mongabay.

One way these knowledge gaps became apparent was when discussions turned to financial liability. In other words, who would pay for the damage caused to the environment if things go wrong? And how does one measure potential damage?

“In the financial mechanism that was being proposed … there was no consideration of environmental damage and environmental loss,” said Amon, who attended online the meetings to support the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) delegation. A working group within the ISA that had been previously set up to discuss the financial aspects of deep-sea mining ultimately agreed to request a study on environmental financial loss, she added.

“It does seem to be baby steps forward,” Amon said. “But again, what is clear is the sheer amount of work that needs to be undertaken in order to get these regulations and the standards and guidelines finished in the time [which] in my opinion, still isn’t possible, never was possible, and is even less possible to get it done on the time frame on which the secretariat would like it to be done.”

Gianni and Amon both noted that states also raised a number of issues around the ISA’s lack of transparency, including how documents were prepared following consultations, and why the ISA withheld crucial pieces of information regarding mining licenses.

While many countries do not appear to support deep-sea mining going ahead in 2023, no country has publicly called for a complete moratorium at the ISA meetings, said Gianni. However, at the IUCN World Congress held in Marseille, France, last year, 88 governments and government agencies, as well as 577 NGOs and civil society organizations, voted to put a stop to deep-sea mining until more information is gathered to understand if it is a responsible decision. This position is also supported by 622 scientists and policy experts.

“Unfortunately, most of the countries are still playing along with the idea that they have to do this, and they’re going to try to adopt these regulations by July 2023,” Gianni said. “And that would be a huge mistake.”

The two-year rule within UNCLOS does not necessarily obligate the ISA to adopt regulations within two years, but it does indicate that the ISA can adopt the regulations at that time — and current negotiations seem to be heading this direction. Additionally, if Nauru applies for an exploitation license on behalf of TMC at the end of the two years, the ISA could choose to follow the procedure laid out by UNCLOS, and “provisionally” approve the license with whatever rules are in place, even if they haven’t been finalized.

‘A whole new problem’

As negotiations at the ISA stumble along, companies are already firing up their engines, preparing to start mining the deep sea in the not-too-distant future. In April 2021, Belgian company Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR) tested its 27-ton mining robot, Patania II, in the CCZ, which at one point became stranded as it attempted to collect polymetallic nodules. TMC also recently announced that it had just successfully finished testing its nodule collector vehicle in the North Sea, and that trials would soon start in the CCZ.

“The biggest threat to the oceans is climate change,” TMC says on its website. “The top priority for the entire planet — including the oceans — should be achieving net-zero emissions.” According to the company, deep-sea mining can support this goal by providing the necessary minerals for renewable technologies.

Yet Gianni said he finds it “almost immoral” to forge ahead with deep-sea mining in the midst of the climate crisis rather than look for alternative materials to build renewable energy technologies.

“[It would] create a whole new problem trying to solve another problem,” he said. “It would be irresponsible of the countries of the world to allow this to happen, whether they’re actively deciding or not.”

He added the next set of ISA meetings scheduled for July 2022 will be “critical” in determining the direction of deep-sea mining.

“The countries that [support] a moratorium are going to have to try to begin engineering a major shift in the direction that these negotiations are taking, and that the ISA overall is taking,” he said.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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