Seabed mining is a hot-button issue, with talks underway in Kingston this week to negotiate the ground rules for mineral extraction from the ocean’s depths.
The talks come days after a two-year window for the International Seabed Authority to set out regulations governing seafloor mining within international waters expired on Sunday.
That period was built into a treaty clause, which was triggered when Nauru notified the ISA of its intention to support mineral extraction via Canadian start-up The Metals Company in 2021.
The minerals in question sit on the bottom of the ocean floor in the form of polymetallic nodules – potato-sized aggregations of rare earth metals like cobalt and nickel. These nodules are being positioned by the industry as palm-sized holy grails of materials needed for clean energy technology.
At present 31 contracts across 22 companies have been approved by the ISA.
But as previously reported by Cosmos, a collection of scientists, national governments and environmental NGOs are opposed to the ISA granting licences without, among other things, adequate protections for marine ecosystems.
In May, researchers published a checklist of 5,000 previously unknown species from the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ).
Scraping the pitch-black depths of international waters to remove nodules may harbour an existential threat to such species – not only due to physical habitat disruption but also the risk of churning toxic metals across the environment. German research, also published in May, suggests nodules may post health hazards due to radiation exposure.
Underwater noise pollution is also a potential disruptor to marine species like whales reliant on echolocation to navigate their environment.
WWF International has led a campaign against deep seabed mining, calling for a moratorium on seabed mining and drawing support from automakers like BMW, Renault, Volvo and VW and tech companies like Google, Philips and Samsung. Last month WWF criticised moves by Norway to begin opening its territorial waters to seabed mining. In a statement, WWF’s campaign spokesperson Jessica Battle described it as “one of the worst environmental decisions Norway has ever made”.
“This decision goes against the government’s own environmental agency, which has already declared that the recently concluded [mining] impact assessment, violates the country’s Seabed Minerals Act and doesn’t adequately address potential transboundary impacts to other nations because of a serious lack of scientific data,” she said.
Germany, Costa Rica, France, Spain, Chile, New Zealand, Panama, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Switzerland, Ireland, and Pacific Island nations like Palau, Fiji, Samoa, Micronesia and Vanuatu have all voiced their concerns over a rush to mine the seabed, although only five of this group sit on the ISA’s governing council.
Opposition isn’t entirely driven by conservation or scientific considerations. Economics plays a part too. The African Group, which represents 47 nations at the ISA, previously criticised the push for seabed extraction. Land-based mining – particularly for the cobalt and manganese found in polymetallic nodules – is a major industry for African nations.
As negotiations among ISA nations continue throughout July, it’s increasingly expected more states will push back on granting licences for exploration until agreement can be reached on a suite of regulations currently in draft form.
“It’s not that nobody’s considering regulations for deep-sea mining,” says Professor Rick Valenta, acting director of the University of Queensland Sustainable Minerals Institute.
“My hope is that those regulations will be adopted before anyone did any mining.”
Valenta’s research teams at the Sustainable Minerals Institute consider system-wide mining and its impacts.
While he acknowledges the importance of environmental considerations beneath the sea, Valenta says decision-makers have a difficult balancing act when considering the use of metals that could be sourced from deep sea nodules.
He contrasts the opportunity of seabed mining with current sources of nickel – particularly in developing nations – which can result in forest felling to access rocks where the valuable metal is contained.
“What are the sustainability implications of seabed mining in comparison to where we’re getting those battery minerals from now?”
“It is something that should be considered in a systematic and factual way, and I know there are Pacific Island that are doing that, where they’re seeing potential for economic benefit from seabed mining as well as a seeing potential risks.
“If you take the 1.5-degree [global warming] scenario, then one thing that is absolutely certain is that we will need to produce a lot more nickel and cobalt, copper, manganese.”
Environmentally friendly, or not?
Valenta takes an agnostic approach to whether deep sea mining is the way to go to acquire vital metals.
Proponents of mineral extraction position the embryonic industry as a more environmentally friendly way to reap the materials necessary for the clean transition.
However, that won’t necessarily put an end to land-based mining, particularly in developing nations reliant on it for income.
“There’s no evidence to suggest that seabed mining would replace land-based mining,” says Dr Aline Jaeckel, an internationally recognised expert in deep seabed mining governance and regulation based at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security.
Because of this Jaeckel says framing seabed mining as some better alternative is fundamentally flawed – it’s an additional extraction method, rather than a substitute.
But aside from the potential environmental impacts, and questions of how to fuel the electrification of human activity, Jaeckel is concerned the decisions being made by the ISA aren’t hearing important voices. With extraction likely to commence in the Pacific, for instance, not every nation within that region benefits from a position on the organisation’s powerful council.
This executive organ of the ISA consists of 36 nations, compared to 167 states with seats on the ISA’s assembly.
“But the assembly very much plays a minor role in terms of governing, at the ISA,” she says.
In a recent comment piece published in the journal npj Ocean Sustainability, Jaeckel and her colleagues expressed concern that deep seabed mining “lacks social legitimacy”.
Beyond environmental and economic considerations, they argued a greater focus on human considerations is required.
“There’s quite a number of voices that are currently not being heard in the seabed mining dispute, at least not formally,” Jaeckel says.
“One of those voices is certainly those of indigenous communities: those would be indigenous communities across the Pacific but also in other areas. There is no formal mechanism at the moment at the ISA to make those voices heard.
“There’s also other stakeholders such as the fishing communities and tourism operators… other communities and industry groups, not formally engaged in the seabed mining negotiations.”
While there is little preventing nations like Norway from allowing extraction in waters under their control, and the two-year clause triggered by Nauru has now expired, the ISA is (at least for now) not obliged to approve applications to begin mining the seafloor in international waters.
However, it’s likely that those applications will now start to come, putting pressure on the governing authority to finalise regulations – pressure that opponents of seabed mining, whether civil society groups or entire governments, believe should be alleviated by a mining moratorium.
Those discussions will conclude by the end of July.
The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation's Flourishing Oceans initiative.