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Deep sea mining is the next major threat to our ocean. Mining companies plan to exploit the seabed for metals they believe can be used for the transition to renewable energy. But now there is a growing awareness of the massive environmental destruction it would cause, the profound injustices it would exacerbate, and the simple fact that we don’t need metals from the ocean floor.
To give an idea of how little we understand the deep ocean, more than 19,000 previously unknown volcanoes were found on the seafloor in April. But even as scientists are just beginning to discover the depths, we are approaching a critical deadline. This month, the first applications for commercial deep-sea mining were approved by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), charged with overseeing seabed mining.
With the devastating impact of the mining machines themselves and the huge, suffocating plumes of sediment they would produce, deep-sea mining would wipe out the ocean ecosystems that have taken millennia to form. The deep ocean is home to an extraordinary diversity of life, comparable to tropical rainforests. Each scientific expedition yields new and fascinating creatures.
This includes the scaly foot snail, which has a shell that is part metal; a kind of ghostly octopus nicknamed ‘Casper’; the Greenland shark, some of which now swim, lived 500 years ago during the reign of Henry VIII; and sponges more than 11,000 years old, the oldest living thing ever seen on Earth.
These environments are cold, stable, change slowly and are extremely fragile. Disrupting it with mining is likely to result in untold wildlife losses, most of which have not even been documented by science, and degrade environments that may never recover.
The ISA is rushing to finalize the regulations because of the so-called ‘two-year rule’ – a process that started in 2021 that set a two-year timer for the completion of the rules around deep-sea mining. This countdown was started by the small island nation of Nauru, who partnered with The Metals Company to enable the latter to mine the ocean.
However, all profits from deep-sea mining will almost certainly flow to a handful of companies and individuals, largely based in the Global North.
For example, a recently approved contract sponsored by Jamaica is held by Jamaica-registered company Blue Minerals Jamaica Ltd. However, this company is actually a subsidiary of a holding company associated with the Swiss Allseas Group and governed by the same board.
Meanwhile, developing countries and ocean-dependent communities will bear the cost. This is not just a prediction. We know it from the recent past. In 2019, the first attempt at deep-sea mining failed, but not before costing the tiny nation of Papua New Guinea more than $100 million.
A wave of resistance
Opposition to deep-sea mining goes far beyond environmental groups. Big business doesn’t support it either.
Brands such as Google, BMW, Samsung, Volvo, Philips, Volkswagen and more have all signed a statement clarifying their opposition to deep-sea mining and the potential seismic impact on the environment.
During a recent webinar, BMW’s Claudia Becker confirmed that the car company is “committed not to use deep-sea minerals until extensive, scientific research into the effects can be conducted and the environmental impacts have been clearly assessed.”
German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke echoed this stance saying that “in my opinion, from the perspective of the German Federal Government, the only reasonable consequence is to refrain from extracting raw materials from the deep sea as long as there are serious damage… the environment cannot be ruled out”.
Germany is not alone: a growing number of states have spoken out against deep-sea mining. Several countries, including Palau, Fiji and the Federated States of Micronesia, are calling for a full moratorium, and French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed his opposition, calling for a ban on deep-sea mining in international waters.
Deep-sea mining has also been opposed by Indigenous leaders, who have emphasized the fundamental incompatibility of deep-sea mining with their culture and heritage.
Solomon Pili Kahoʻohalahala, a seventh-generation Native Hawaiian descendant of the island of Lānaʻi, told us that “if mining companies come to exploit the ocean floor for profit, they do so in the knowledge that they are decimating sacred and cultural connections.”
More and more actual and potential financiers of deep-sea mining are also deciding that it is not worth the risk.
The technology is unproven, requires extensive capital and operational expenditures, and timescales for the industry to become active may not match the demand for its output.
The market share of batteries that require neither cobalt nor nickel – key targets of deep-sea miners – rose from 17% in January 2021 to 31% in September 2022, nearly doubling in less than two years.
In March of this year, the largest corporate investor, US aerospace, arms and defense company Lockheed Martin, exited the industry, quickly followed by shipping giant Maersk.
Investing in deep-sea mining is at odds with sustainable investing. It may also run into future requirements to disclose the impact of investments on biodiversity, which is already mandatory in France.
In short, deep-sea mining will mean massive destruction we can’t predict, to produce minerals we don’t need. It would disrupt our planet’s largest carbon sink and harm countless species we haven’t even encountered yet. In our recently launched Manifesto for Our Ocean, we call on everyone to join us, and the growing global wave of opposition to reject it.
Steve Trent is the CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation