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Pacific island of Nauru presses UN to approve deep-sea mining

Deep-sea mining could proceed in two years causing “irreversible” damage to biodiversity and the marine ecosystem, say scientists.

Nodules on the deep sea floor
Mineral nodules on the deep sea floor. Image: Mongabay

The small Pacific island nation of Nauru has notified the United Nations’ International Seabed Authority (ISA) of its intention to start deep-sea mining, in a significant step forward for a pioneering minerals industry that some environmentalists say could have a devastating impact on the marine ecosystem.

Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea told the ISA of its mining plans in a June 25 letter, Reuters reported on Wednesday. Nauru, a Pacific island roughly 4,506 km northeast of Australia, asked the ISA to approve its plan within two years, although the rules governing deep-sea mining have yet to be finalised. 

Divisive industry

Nauru together with two other small impoverished Pacific island countries – Tonga and Kiribati – are the sponsoring states for deep-sea mining company, DeepGreen’s exploration of 149,543 square kilometres in a stretch of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico called the Pacific’s Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ). 

The deep ocean holds the world’s largest reserves of minerals. Sea-bed mining remains technologically and commercially unproven, but the increasing difficulty of finding the deposits on land together with the rising demand for the metals in clean energy technologies is increasing interest in digging up the ocean’s riches.

But scientists are worried that delving into the ocean’s depths could unleash fresh environmental disasters.

More than 300 hundred marine scientists and policy experts from 44 countries called for a halt of deep-sea mining last week, warning that it would result in a loss of biodiversity and functioning ecosystems that would be “irreversible on multigenerational timescales.”

The deep-sea mining science statement said deep-sea mining would compound a number of anthropogenic stressors, including climate change, bottom trawling and pollution.

“There is a paucity of rigorous scientific information available concerning the biology, ecology and connectivity of deep-sea species and ecosystems, as well as the ecosystem services they provide,” the letter said.

The scientists join a chorus of others, including environmentalists, the European Parliament, and some national governments, calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until its ecological impacts are better understood.

Non-governmental organisations as well as multinationals–Google, BMW Group, Samsung and Volvo–endorsed a temporary ban on deep-sea mining in March, stating that they will not source minerals mined from the deep sea floor nor invest in the practice.

Nauru’s request is unprecedented, sparking uncertainty about how to interpret the rules governing deep-sea mining. Meanwhile, corruption is a “serious problem” on the small Pacific island with a population of 11,000, according to non-profit, Freedom House, raising concerns about how well the government will be able to exercise control over this nascent industry. Conservation groups have appealed to Nauru to retract the written request. 

Not a done deal

Nauru and DeepGreen may not be able to forge ahead with their mining activities because international regulations have not been finalised, experts say.

“We have just embarked on the UN decade for ocean science and there has been a lot of pressure to not adopt any regulations before the conclusion of that decade, once we have better understood what the deep ocean contains,” said Aline Jaeckel, lecturer at the school of Global and Public Law, University New South Wales, Australia.

The regulations are likely to take a number of years to finalise given there are a number of questions around the payment scheme, the compensation allocated to land-based mineral producing states and the environmental standards, Jaeckel told Eco-Business. “There is a lot of work to be done before the regulations are at a stage where they might be able to be adoptable,” she said. 

Furthermore, without enough data to do a rigorous environmental impact assessment, it is unlikely DeepGreen will be able to proceed. “I think that is going to be a key question—is there enough baseline data? The ISA must take into account their environmental mandate. The ISA is fully entitled to reject an application for a mining contract,” according to Jaeckel. 

Potentially harmful solution to a green problem

DeepGreen, which plans to list on the Nasdaq in the third quarter of this year in a merger with blank-check company Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corp, has argued that sucking up potato-sized polymetallic nodules rich in nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean will create great wealth for Pacific island communities with minimal environmental impact.

The mining company has also claimed that there is enough metal in the sea-bed to supply the planet’s electric vehicles and clean energy needs while avoiding the problems associated with land mining. Cobalt, a key metal for electric car batteries, is almost entirely reliant on the Democratic Republic of Congo, central Africa, where child labour is common

However, there is little evidence to suggest that one is better than the other, said Diva Amon, a deep-sea biologist and scientific associate at the Natural History Museum in London. “There has been no rigorous assessment of what the full lifecycle analysis and therefore impacts from that lifecycle will be for deep sea mining and for terrestrial mining,” Amon told Eco-Business.

DeepGreen officials have “consistently misrepresented the deep ocean, deep-sea life, and even their potential impact,” said Amon. Its chief ocean scientist, Greg Stone described it as “a very deep, dark, very monotonous kind of place,” in a 2019 podcast interview. The company’s critics say its marketing spin on deep-sea mining is a deliberate attempt to masquerade as a green solution while obfuscating the potential harm on the ocean.

The majority of species in the CCZ are new to science, said Amon, who is part of the body of scientists asking for more time to study these undiscovered areas.

“That biodiversity is directly linked to many ecosystem functions and services that you and I rely on, that life on the planet relies on…climate regulation, links to fisheries, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling—there is a lot that the deep ocean provides. And yet, we really don’t understand that very well or how those mechanisms occur,” Amon explained. 

DeepGreen is set to receive nearly US$600 million in investor cash when it goes public. The company, which will be known as The Metals Company after listing, is backed by commodities group Glencore and shipping giant, Maersk. 

Environmentalists have challenged the listing. In a letter sent on 1 June to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, Deep Sea Mining Campaign, an environmental group, asked for an investigation into the failure to properly disclose potentially catastrophic risks of sea-bed mining. 

DeepGreen has subsequently updated its filing with the commission, acknowledging that it cannot predict, “whether the environment and biodiversity is impacted by our activities, and if so, how long the environment and biodiversity will take to recover. In addition, it is unknown how effectively mitigation strategies can prevent potential biodiversity loss and species extinctions,” the note dated 22 June states.

Louisa Casson of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign said mining companies could not be trusted as the pioneers of the deep sea.

“We’re in the midst of a climate and nature crisis: we can’t leave the largest ecosystem on Earth to the whim of these cowboy mining companies,” Casson said in a statement. “The very fact that our ocean is so vulnerable to these industries shows exactly why we urgently need a strong Global Ocean Treaty to protect our international waters from untrammelled plundering.”

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