Exploitation of the Earth’s last frontier will leave the world in deep water

There is increasing pressure to delve into the deep sea and extract precious minerals and metals that governments and businesses say are crucial to driving a low-carbon future. Has the mining industry sunk to new lows?

Indonesia's blue economy
As the world’s largest archipelagic nation, with more than 17,400 islands, 5.9 million square kilometres of territorial water and exclusive economic zone, and an 81,000-kilometer-long coastline, Indonesia has gained recognition as a strong promoter of the blue economy concept. Image: Shutterstock

The world’s largest ecosystem is at risk of toxic pollution, habitat disruption and species extinction as more countries and companies eye the ocean floor for metals and minerals, according to a new report by environmental advocacy group Greenpeace.

Only 0.0001 per cent of the deep seafloor has been explored or sampled by scientists, Greenpeace stated in the report, In Deep Water: The Emerging Threat of Deep Sea Mining. Yet, little stands in the way of irreversible harm to it, as an emerging industry prepares to extract precious resources it claims is essential for a transition to a low-carbon economy.

Commercial deep sea mining has not yet begun, but “exploration licences for deep sea mining have already been granted before a framework of comprehensive protection and a network of sanctuaries has been put in place in international waters,” Greenpeace stated.

“Deep sea mining risks severe and potentially irreversible environmental harm, both at the mine sites and beyond. The deep ocean’s biodiversity and ecosystem functioning is barely understood and robust risk mitigation is not possible,” it said.

Never yet turned down a licence application

According to the report, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a United Nations body regulating mineral-related activities in international waters, has issued 29 exploration licences that cover close to one million square kilometres of seabed. The licences were granted to several countries including the United Kingdom, China, France, Belgium, Germany, India and Russia, which sponsor private companies.

“The ISA has never yet turned down a licence application, even to explore places of high ecological significance like the Lost City near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which has been identified as an ecologically important area under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and which meets criteria for UNESCO World Heritage status,” said Greenpeace.

The ISA approval green-lights the British government’s plan to mine the Pacific for polymetallic nodules, which are valued for their high concentration of earth metals. The project, the biggest in the world for deep sea mining, is part of a joint venture with UK Seabed Resources, which is a subsidiary of American military firm Lockheed Martin. 

One Belgian company, DEME, and its deep sea division Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR) released a briefing note to climate organisations that read:  “As we work towards a decarbonised economy, demand for rare minerals is increasing exponentially and inexorably. GSR recognises that satisfying that demand through terrestrial mining is untenable and will irreparably damage our planet. The deep-sea presents a viable alternative to this.”

India, which won four of the 29 licences issued by the ISA, is investing heavily in underwater technology which, according to N.H. Khadge, a scientist at India’s National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), follows environmentally-friendly guidelines set by the UN body and would be far less harmful to the planet than mining on land.

On ventures into the deep sea, he told Thomson Reuters Foundation: “It is not exploitation, it is friendly collection of the commercial deposits.”

A green economy run on marine exploitation?

Environmentalists have called out the deep sea mining industry and its sponsors for following in the footsteps of the fossil fuel industry, which is now widely known to have continued its operations despite awareness of the potential disastrous impacts on the environment.

Industry players called environmental concerns the “biggest blocker to progress” on operations in the deep sea, as minutes of an industry meeting released to Greenpeace under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act revealed. 

“The deep sea mining industry appears to have resolved to gain political acceptability for its significant environmental costs by framing the industry as essential for the development of a low-carbon, high-tech future,” the report said.

The claim that deep sea mining is necessary for the transition to a green economy has not been supported by players in the clean energy, electric vehicle or battery industries.

Furthermore, according to The One Earth Climate Model launched by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation earlier this year, global transition pathways to 100 per cent renewable energy do not require industrial expansion into new frontiers for metal or mineral extraction.

Operations in the lowest depths of the ocean would undermine efforts to mitigate climate change by releasing carbon stores in deep sea sediments and endanger an ecosystem deemed crucial for human survival, environmentalists argue.

In an opinion piece for The Guardian, British naturalist Chris Packham wrote: “By disturbing the natural processes that store carbon in deep-sea sediments, deep-sea mining could even make climate change worse. When a million species are already at risk of extinction and climate change is fundamentally altering our planet—why would we sink to new depths, and make it all worse?”

Industry moves into uncharted territory

“The ocean performs many really important services for us that we can’t confer a value to. Without those services, the earth systems simply wouldn’t work and wouldn’t be able to support life in the way that it does,” said Alex Rogers, science director at the Norway-based REV Ocean Foundation, at a recent dialogue in Singapore on environmental protection.

He added that only 0.0001 per cent of the deep seafloor has been investigated by humans although the deep ocean encompasses 95 per cent of the habitable space on Earth. 

“Most of what’s going on there in terms of biology, we haven’t observed and probably don’t really understand.”

Research has shown that moving forward with commercial deep sea mining, despite its known risks, is not feasible from both financial and ecological perspectives. Scientists have also warned that gaps in scientific understanding of the deep sea impede impact assessments from being carried out effectively.

In the report, oceanographer Sylvia Earle described deep sea mining as a “land grab.”

“What are we sacrificing by looking at the deep sea with dollar signs on the few tangible materials that we know are there? We haven’t begun to truly explore the ocean before we have started aiming to exploit it,” she said. 

Greenpeace and other environmental groups have called on governments to deflect from their economic imperatives and consider the environmental and human rights impacts associated with deep sea mining.

They are demanding an agreement on a strong binding Global Ocean Treaty at the UN next year, to make vast areas of international waters off limits to reckless industrial exploitation.

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