What You Should Know About Deep Sea Mining

As the world attempts to take steps towards more sustainable energy practices, new industries crop up, bringing with them a wealth of controversies to wade through. One such is the nascent field of deep sea mining.

Regulating Deep Sea Mining

In the 1980s, the majority of the world – with the notable exception of the US – signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which established International Seabed Authority (ISA).

The ISA has 167 member states today (including Australia), and is charged with creating regulations to govern the deep sea mining industry – a task it’s still working on today.

Full-scale extraction from the seabed is prohibited until regulations are agreed upon. But, in the meantime the ISA grants exploration approval, and allows parties to reserve areas for future exploitation. Private companies wanting to mine must partner with an ISA member country to access these privileges.

Tensions have escalated recently thanks to a loophole clause in the convention, known as Paragraph 15. It states that if any member country submits a formal notification they want to start mining in international waters, the ISA will have 2 years to create and adopt full regulations. If it fails to do so, the ISA is obliged to “none the less consider and provisionally approve such plan of work.”

In 2021, the president of Nauru did just that, notifying the ISA that Nauru and its partner, a subsidiary of the Metals Company, planned to start mining. Progress on this development has been slow, but the ISA press office says they expect to complete their regulations at their upcoming 2024 sessions.

The Risks

One reason deep sea mining has become such a hot topic is due to rising interest in electric vehicles (EVs). Minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese – critical for the production of EVs – are found in seabeds, and demand is incredibly high.

Proponents of deep sea mining, like the Mining Company CEO Gerard Barron, say it is cheaper than the land-based status quo, and will cause less environmental damage. They also point out myriad issues with mining these metals today, from deforestation in Indonesia to child exploitation in the Congo.

But environmentalists strongly disagree. The non-profit Planet Tracker estimates that seabed mining could cause up to 25 times more damage to the earth’s biodiversity than land-based mining.

Their June 2023 report put the cost of restoring deep sea floor at $5.3-5.7 million per square kilometre – about twice the cost of mining it, and more than the estimated revenue extracted minerals would generate.

The majority of exploration licenses and international interest in deep sea mining is concentrated in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, an area covering 4.5 million square kilometres. Studies show 42% of known deep-sea species were found for the first time in the CCZ, and 90% of species in the zone are unknown – facts environmentalists say show the significant risks of deep sea mining in the region.

Scientists stress seabed mining will unleash noise, light and suffocating dust storms on the ocean’s flora and fauna, and express concerns over inevitable fuel spills and chemical accidents. Activists have also pointed out deep sea mining will threaten the livelihoods and spiritual connections of Pasifika people to the ocean.

At the moment, more than 20 countries support at least a temporary moratorium on deep sea mining, including the European Parliament, Chile, Canada, and several Pacific island nations. Back home in Australia, NSW recently became the first Aussie state to ban forms of seabed mining, in a bill passed in March.

Beyond countries, several banks have pledged not to loan to seabed mining ventures, and even a number of major corporations including BMW, Microsoft, Google, Volvo, Volkswagen and Samsung have said they won’t buy deep-sea minerals.

Cover photo by Tavis Beck on Unsplash.

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