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A gold rush in the deep sea raises questions about the authority charged with protecting it

Michael Lodge, secretary-general of the International Seabed Authority, near center with hand at his chin, stands with DeepGreen CEO Gerard Barron, left center, and DeepGreen chief ocean scientist Greg Stone, second from right, while touring the Maersk Launcher used by the mining company in 2018. (Sandy Huffaker / Associated Press )

Posted on April 20, 2022

The startup’s pitch was simple and cinematic:

The mining company would send large robots to explore the bottom of the ocean and harvest minerals millions of years old that could be used to make electric car batteries.

A promotional video showed a machine gliding over the seabed and DeepGreen Metals company executives in deep contemplation along a dramatic shoreline. A big selling point at a time the company was courting investors, though, was the man shown walking on a massive ship and speaking of the need to mine the ocean floor: the secretary-general of the International Seabed Authority, the United Nations-affiliated organization responsible for regulating ocean mining companies and preserving the deep sea.

Michael Lodge’s appearance in the video struck now-former members of Lodge’s own staff — and scientists who warn of potentially catastrophic environmental fallout from the mining venture — as problematic. It raised concerns, they said, of a conflict of interest between industry, the authority and its secretariat, the 47-person administrative arm Lodge leads, at a crucial moment for the world’s oceans.

“Land-based resources are becoming increasingly difficult to access. We have taken the best resources already,” Lodge said in the 2018 video, as he peered at the computer screens on the DeepGreen vessel. He went on to let viewers know that his agency was on board with the company’s quest, having greenlighted a 15-year “exploration” contract.

As Lodge’s organization works to draft regulations that will allow robots to mine the seabed on an industrial scale, internal documents reviewed by The Times point to a closeness with mining companies that stands out as unorthodox in environmental regulation.

“The ISA is not fit to regulate any activity in international waters,” said Sandor Mulsow, a marine geologist who served as the authority’s top environmental official for more than five years until 2019. “It is like to ask the wolf to take care of the sheep.”

The authority, which was established by a United Nations treaty but operates autonomously, is pushing to set up rules that could allow seabed mining in as soon as two years, despite calls from scientists and even some car companies for more research into the little-known ecosystems and the scale of damage that excavating the ocean floor could cause. A vast stretch of the Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico is set to be mined first, and Southern California ports would probably be a major base for some mining operations.

This new frontier of the electric car supply chain operates by its own rules. Much of the International Seabed Authority’s key work is conducted out of sight from its members — 167 nations and the European Union. Australia, Mexico, Chile, Britain and at least five other member states have expressed growing concern that the authority isn’t requiring mining contractors to do enough environmental assessment. The organization is accused by some nongovernmental organizations and some of its own former employees of being too accommodating to the companies it regulates.

Its budget is small, at less than $10 million, but auditors and key ISA staff have raised concerns over the authority’s financial controls. The staff is dispirited to the point that a management consultant in 2018 summarized the ISA in an internal email as “an unpleasant (and often toxic) place to be.” The consultant returned in 2019 to report morale had dropped further.

The International Seabed Authority, through a lawyer, disputed the findings of The Times’ investigation. It said the authority “consists of motivated, highly committed experts from more than 20 countries, working hard to fulfill the important mandate with which it has been entrusted.” Asked about the promotional video in which Lodge is shown, the ISA said he regularly interacts with stakeholders including member states and contractors and visits sites including research vessels, adding that “interactions reflect the proper and professional continuance” of the authority’s mission. “The ISA had little control over the use of the images captured by third parties.”

Lodge has publicly accused critics of the authority of misconstruing its work and overstating the potential impacts of mining. At a conference in June, he talked of “a growing environmental absolutism and dogmatism bordering on fanaticism.”

Earlier, he had pointedly dismissed concerns raised by scientists and nonprofits, telling the publication Economist Impact that the consequences of mining are “predictable and manageable.” “If you said that no industry can start until we know what is going to happen from that industry, then that’s an entirely circular argument that would prevent any industry in the history of humanity from starting,” Lodge said in the late 2019 interview.

When Radio New Zealand referred to Lodge as a “cheerleader” for mining interests in 2020, he threatened a defamation lawsuit, according to a letter sent to the news organization by an Australian law firm representing the secretary-general. Radio New Zealand subsequently removed the reference to Lodge in a news story.

Electric vehicles start seabed gold rush

The International Seabed Authority operated in relative obscurity for years from its harborside headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea established the authority in 1994 to ensure the “equitable exploitation” of the seabed in international waters, which it declared “the common heritage of mankind.”

Now, a California-led push for electric vehicles has brought it more attention as automakers scramble to find the cobalt, nickel and other minerals crucial to making the batteries that power the vehicles. The International Energy Agency projects that demand for the materials could soar 600% over the next two decades.

That has some deep-pocketed companies and investors looking toward the sea.

They are invoking the urgency of climate action and harm caused by gas- and diesel-powered vehicles in their push to vacuum the seabed for ancient, mineral-rich nodules. Mining contractors, which also include government-owned enterprises and agencies, must be sponsored by a member state and would pay royalties to the authority once extraction begins. At present they are permitted only to engage in research expeditions aimed at gauging the viability and environmental impact of mining. But rules the ISA is fast-tracking would allow large-scale excavation.



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