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Deep Sea Mining the New Frontier

Posted on June 28, 2022

To power the energy revolution, nations have stripped their lands for the metals crucial to build everything from Teslas to wind turbines. The hunt for cobalt has left a trail of pollution and human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while Zambia’s copper mining industry has poisoned nearby rivers. In nickel-rich Indonesia, mining has generated enough runoff to dye the country’s waters red.

Many countries have now set their sights on a new market: the deep ocean floor. These depths potentially hold an untapped trove of metals—nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese—tucked into polymetallic nodules, potato-shaped deposits that are millions of years old. Mining these riches, they say, is the key to a greener future. Some are already fiddling with the lock.

Last June, Nauru, a small Pacific nation with a history of mining disasters, triggered a little-known legal clause that effectively started a two-year countdown for deep-sea mining to begin in international waters. With the clock ticking, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the body responsible for regulating the industry, now has just over a year to finalize guidelines for what could be the world’s biggest mining opportunity.

The problem is that nobody knows for sure what the costs of such a venture would be—and not just the economic costs. Many experts warn that rushing forward with deep-sea mining could unleash an industry that inflicts irreversible environmental harm, disturbing fragile habitats and even wiping out species that have yet to be identified. At this point, they say, more time is needed to understand the risks of mining—and what could be lost.

“We’re talking about destroying huge parts of our ocean, which play key roles in climate regulation,” said Diva Amon, a deep-sea biologist. “We would like the opportunity to explore that so that we don’t make the same mistakes that we have made previously in terms of resource use on this planet.”

Andrew Sweetman, professor and research leader at the Heriot-Watt University’s Lyell Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland, explains how samples are obtained from deep in the ocean as part of research efforts to see the effects mining will have on the Pacific Ocean’s environment in San Diego on June 8, 2021.

The seafloor, thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean, is a world shrouded in darkness—and mystery. Concealed within these shadowy waters are creatures varying from bioluminescent glass squids to bloodybelly comb jellies, heart-shaped organisms that glow like string lights. Despite encompassing 99 percent of the world’s livable space, less than one-fifth of the ocean is estimated to have been explored by scientists.

“We know more about the surface of Mars and the moon than we do of the deep sea,” said Arlo Hemphill, a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace USA. “Every single time we go down into the deep sea for research, new discoveries are made.”

It could also be brimming with untapped riches. The deep sea is estimated to hold billions of dry tons of polymetallic nodules packed with cobalt, manganese, copper, and nickel, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Crucial to the lithium ion batteries that power everything from electric vehicles to iPhones, these metals are in high demand—and just one stretch of the seafloor could contain more than can be found on land.

The economics of extraction are murkier. Proponents of mining say these deposits contain high grades of metals—and significant quantities—making the deep seafloor an attractive alternative to terrestrial mines. The Metals Company (TMC), one of the main parties racing toward the deep sea, claims its contract areas could contain enough metals for 280 million electric vehicles. But the economic viability of potential operations is still unclear, especially since the technology required is still being tested.

“You’ve got very, very good resources as long as that technology can be proved, and it’s only really once that technology is proved that we will fully understand the economics,” ISA Secretary-General Michael Lodge told Foreign Policy. “Until then, everything is a little bit speculative.”

Even if it seems economically daunting, the potential bounty has long captivated nations around the world. Provisions for deep-sea mining were included in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and were essentially codified in 1994 with the creation of the ISA, meant to draw up mining regulations for the high seas, which is everything outside of the 200-nautical mile (or 230-mile) exclusive economic zone that coastal states are entitled to.

A worker holds a manganese nodule at the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in Hanover, Germany, on July 21, 2011. The red dot marks the top of the tuber.

Some 167 states have ratified UNCLOS; one notable exception is the United States, which initially balked at the constraints of ISA deep-sea mining rules and has since been hobbled by domestic debates over sovereignty. The ISA currently prohibits countries from mining, limiting them to exploration licenses.

Still, the ISA’s very creation, long before there was even a deep-sea mining industry to regulate, is in many ways a landmark event, said Jeroen Ingels, a marine ecologist at Florida State University. “I can’t think of any other example where an industry is being regulated or at least the plan is being set up to regulate it … before it actually happens,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity.”

It will also be an enormous test of global stewardship. With a mandate to act “for the benefit of mankind,” the ISA is designed to include both a benefits-sharing scheme that supports developing countries as well as a compensation system for countries that are economically reliant on terrestrial mining, many of which have decried the two-year countdown to begin sea mining.

“It really was this dream of a clean new industry that is going to be sharing financial and capacity benefits and know-how with all nations in the developing world. That’s this ideal,” said Kristina Gjerde, a senior high seas advisor to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

But the reality, she said, has been uglier: “When you get down to the dirty reality, it’s a few companies from developed countries going under the guise of developing countries because you have to have a state sponsor to get access to the seafloor.” (The United States, since it hasn’t ratified UNCLOS or joined the ISA, can’t take part in the scramble.)

Take Nauru, the Pacific nation at the center of the two-year rush for the deep sea. The island has a history of mining fiascos: Decades ago, Nauru was embroiled in disastrous phosphate mining schemes that left it barren and ultimately set it on a path toward economic freefall. It was in this precarious financial state that Nauru teamed up with TMC, a Canadian firm that has also partnered with Tonga and Kiribati. But their relationship has raised questions about which party is actually in the driver’s seat and shaping the future of the deep-sea mining industry, with TMC CEO Gerard Barron even standing in as the country’s delegate in an ISA meeting.

“You have this really pretty absurd situation at the moment where these countries arguably don’t have effective control over the entities that they are sponsoring,” said Pradeep Singh, a research associate at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies. “It’s not just the regulations we need to sort out. We need to sort out what is going on here.”

Employees of Soil Machine Dynamics work on a deep-sea mining machine being built for Nautilus Minerals at Wallsend, northern England, on April 14, 2014

The race to tap the riches of the seafloor reflects the fundamental paradox of global growth. To fight environmental problems, such as accelerating climate change brought about by unchecked growth and consumerism, some say there may be little alternative but to court fresh environmental havoc.

“The world can’t continue to support that level of consumerism without consequence, and the consequence we’re seeing now is environmental degradation, which may mean we need to create another habitat to supply the minerals to stop environmental degradation,” said Andrew Sweetman, a professor of deep-sea ecology at Heriot-Watt University. “It’s so backwards, but this is where we are.”

The countries and companies that have already funneled tens of millions of dollars toward environmental impact assessments argue that extracting these metals—all of which are required in electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies—is crucial for the energy transition.

“There’s a global need for metals,” Barron, the CEO of TMC, told Foreign Policy. “Decarbonizing the planet is very metal-intensive, and so what we’ve been focused on is: Where can we find the supply of these important battery metals with the lightest planetary and human impact?”

But hundreds of scientists say that understates the risks involved. “They sort of skip over the part that there are serious environmental impacts in the new environment that they’re trying to seek to get the minerals from,” Gjerde said.

What is known about the deep sea suggests that mining could have a wide-ranging and even catastrophic impact, unleashing pollution and sediment plumes that disrupt a fragile habitat teeming with life. Given how much of the deep sea is still unexplored, they warn, the world could lose species that still have yet to be named.

“We’re talking about initiating a new inherently destructive industry in probably what’s among the most pristine settings on the planet,” said Lisa Levin, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and founder of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative.

The ISA says it will exercise strict oversight over mining operations. “We have very strong legal powers already, but we fully expect we’ll be able to use those powers to monitor activities,” said Lodge, the ISA secretary-general. “We will put in a lot of emphasis on remote monitoring.”

Sandor Mulsow, the former head of the ISA’s Office of Environmental Management and Mineral Resources, is less optimistic. Since mining contractors are often conducting their own environmental baseline studies, he said, “It is like the wolf taking care of the sheep.”

With just a year left to negotiate the details of what seabed mining regulation will look like, there remain a host of thorny questions still unanswered, from the economics of the new industry to its environmental impact to how the novel benefits-sharing regime envisioned by the ISA will actually work. But the clock is now ticking.

“There are still far more questions than answers in all of this mining equation,” Amon said. “The trigger really is quite frankly irresponsible because it is essentially forcing this process to move forward before those essential pieces are in place.”

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