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Sometimes referred to as the ‘oil of the 21st century’, metals such as nickel, cobalt and manganese are used to make the batteries that power electric cars and mobile phones. Though widely extracted from terrestrial mines, demand for the precious metals that fuel energy transition is growing even as many are in relatively short supply. As a potential supply crisis looms, attention is increasingly shifting to the seabed, which is thought to contain large quantities of these metals.

“Mining companies are working hard to convince politicians of the potential benefits of deep-sea mining,” says Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the organisation Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), founded in 2004. But as Greenpeace UK activist Louisa Casson tells Equal Times, mining in the ocean’s depths would encroach on the “virtually unknown ecosystems” found there.

While current deposits can be found in different forms, mining companies are particularly interested in the polymetallic nodule fields located in several abyssal plains. Billions of these nodules, each roughly the size of a potato, lie on the ocean floor between 4 and 5 kilometres below the ocean’s surface. And most attention is focused on one particular geographical area: the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean, which, according to a 2019 study published in the science journal Nature, contains 274 million tonnes of nickel and 226 million tonnes of copper.

With several exploration operations already underway, many fear that unique ecosystems could be destroyed. According to the article published in Nature: “These regions are some of the quietest, most remote ecosystems on the planet, where fine sediment rains down at a rate of about one centimetre every 1,000 years. That low-energy environment is home to polychaete worms, crustaceans, sponges, sea cucumbers, starfish, brittlestars, sea urchins and various deep-sea fish, as well as countless microbial species and tiny sediment-dwelling creatures.”

Seamounts are home to species of shark that can live for hundreds of years and which are particularly vulnerable to external disturbances, while 85 per cent of the species found in some hydrothermal vents are known to occur only in this ecosystem. According to a report published in May 2020 by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign and MiningWatch Canada: “The accumulated scientific evidence indicates that the impacts of nodule mining in the Pacific Ocean would be extensive, severe and last for generations, causing essentially irreversible damage.”

In addition to causing noise and light disturbance, robotic nodule harvesters could also stir up clouds of sediment that would rise to the surface via water columns and potentially impact fish populations, a cause of concern for the fishing industry.

In 2019, the Long Distance Fisheries Advisory Council (LDAC), an EU body representing the sector’s stakeholders, adopted a resolution in support of a moratorium on deep-sea mining, in which it emphasised the need to comply with UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 on the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans.

Finally, deep-sea mining could potentially exacerbate climate change by disrupting the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide by plants and animals in the deep sea, a process known as ‘blue carbon’.

Questionable authority

While new technologies make deep-sea mining in the more or less near future viable, the costs remain high. The tools required for mining the seabed are very different to those already used in offshore oil stations, which are exclusively designed for drilling. Extracting metals from the deep sea requires different processes, from nodule aspiration to fracturing of the oceanic crust.

“The viability of these investments remains a huge question mark,” says Andrew Friedman, associate director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s mining project. “We’ve been discussing the potential of deep-sea mining for almost 20 years, but there has yet to be a commercial scale test.”

In the meantime, prospecting operations are increasing. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), founded in 1994 under the aegis of the United Nations, is currently granting permits. The ISA, which is made up of 167 member countries and the European Union, has so far granted 21 exploration licences, 18 of which are for areas within the CCZ.

These licenses have been issued to companies such as UK Seabed Resources (a subsidiary of US company Lockheed Martin) and DeepGreen (The Metals Company) of Canada, as well as research institutes such as Ifremer.

The ISA is required to issue a mining code to regulate mining activities and negotiations were scheduled for 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, forced the ISA to cancel its 26th session, delaying the drafting of a text that is crucial to protecting the seabed, which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) affirmed in 1994 to be a common heritage of humanity. The provision implies that the ocean does not belong to anyone and prevents countries from claiming territories on the high seas.

The ISA’s authority itself has also been called into question. In its report Deep Trouble: The murky world of the deep sea mining industry, Greenpeace is critical of the body entrusted with protecting the deep sea. “The Authority is acting under the assumption that deep-sea mining is already a given,” laments Casson of Greenpeace. “It has issued a mining exploration contract for every application it has received.” The DSCC has also criticised the ISA for its opaque decision-making process and called for it to be overhauled.

But as it stands, things could accelerate quickly. Last July, the island state of Nauru used a controversial provision of UNCLOS to speed up mining negotiations, citing DeepGreen’s claim that recovering metals from the deep sea is the “cleanest path toward electric vehicles,” an analysis widely questioned by scientists.

Nauru’s request has triggered the ‘two-year rule,’ which stipulates that the ISA must allow DeepGreen to mine the seabed in an area within the CCZ in 2023 with the legislation in force at that time. This gives the ISA only 24 months to regulate these activities. “This two-year rule is crucial,” says Casson. “If the ISA fails to put effective legislation into place, we won’t be able to properly regulate this activity in the future.” Gianni worries that “if Nauru and DeepGreen are granted a provisional licence, others could similarly trigger the two-year rule and turn the licensing process into a complete mess.

The difficulty of regulating the high seas

Scientists are all the more concerned about the lacking regulatory framework as major powers such as the United States and Australia seek to break their dependence on China for the supply of precious metals. China controls a significant portion of the world’s reserves, as well as its production channels.

At the same time, activities on the high seas are difficult to monitor. International waters, which represent more than 60 per cent of the world’s seas and oceans, are governed by UNCLOS. Signed in 1982, the agreement governs seabed mining but is silent on the management of water columns and the preservation of biodiversity. While the international community has yet to agree on a new treaty to protect the high seas, the current legal ambiguity in this area makes it difficult to draw up a mining code, especially as the world’s major powers are already struggling to regulate activities such as illegal fishing (IUU) and illegal trafficking.

Some are calling for the creation of protected reserves and the development of low-impact technological tools should deep-sea mining become inevitable. But according to researcher Pierre-Marie Sarradin of Ifremer: “We cannot protect what we don’t know, or don’t know well enough. Which areas should be protected, what are the reproduction cycles of these organisms? We need to answer these questions in order to propose effective solutions.”

Faced with these unknowns, several scientists and NGOs are calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. So are companies such as Samsung, BMW, Google and Volvo, which have issued a statement along the same lines. And with other technology companies such as US company Tesla and BYD of China have already decided to do without these materials to build the batteries for their electric cars, another path seems possible. “We are taking steps [towards deep-sea mining] before even asking ourselves if we could do without these resources,” says Sarradin. For the moment, the thousand-year-old tranquillity of the ocean’s depths remains untouched, but for how long? This article has been translated from French by Brandon Johnson