When the island nation of Nauru announced it would sponsor a deep-sea mining effort for battery materials, the country sparked panic among scientists and world leaders. It meant that companies could soon start harvesting minerals such as nickel, cobalt and copper from the deepest depths of the ocean for the first time. Scientists sounded the alarm: What havoc would that wreak on ecosystems that humans are barely beginning to understand?
The move set a deadline for the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to decide on deep-sea mining regulations by July 2023. the deadline for the vessel’s regulation is approaching — and the ISA, an international organization established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is expected to miss it. Once the deadline has passed, companies eager to harvest resources that were previously unattainable can formally apply for permits to mine the deep sea.
A growing group of governments and conservationists are trying to keep the floodgates closed. They want the ISA to reject all proposed mining efforts, at least until it enacts a mining code or set of regulations for international seafloor mining. And many researchers say we know too little about the ocean abyss to even create rules designed to minimize any damage from mining.
“I don’t think we’ve reached a point in time where deep-sea mining can be done responsibly.”
“I don’t think we’ve reached the point in time where deep-sea mining can be done responsibly,” said Pradeep Singh, an ocean governance expert and a fellow at the Research Institute for Sustainability at Helmholtz Center Potsdam. “We will end up with the situation where we see more of the same old problems [with mining] on land, but new ones at sea.”
Companies that want to exploit the deep sea claim that they are doing the world a favor. Electric vehicles, solar panels and so many of our everyday gadgets require rechargeable batteries. But land-based supply chains for key battery materials such as cobalt are riddled with allegations of human rights violations. So why not avoid that mess by taking to the sea? After all, parts of the seabed are covered with polymetallic nodules rich in nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese. And then there are the underwater hydrothermal vents, which spew nickel, copper and other rare elements.
But Singh says a race to the sea would only exacerbate problems on land by driving competition to produce cheap minerals. And more and more research is being done into the effects of deep-sea mining on sensitive marine life. According to a study published last year, the sound alone could be louder than a rock concert. Mining can also raise sediment plumes that can smother nearby ecosystems. The damage would be irreversible, says another report published in March.
The deep-sea mining code to be drafted by the ISA “will ensure further protection of the marine environment while setting out the requirements for the responsible access to and use of the resources critical to combating climate change”, sponsored by mining company Nauru, The Metals Company, told The edge in March.
The Metals Company and similar companies require a land sponsor to apply for a mining permit. And those applications could soon roll into the ISA. But what happens next depends heavily on an ISA meeting scheduled to begin on July 10. after the deadline to create the code has technically passed. Therefore, it is quite certain that there will be no rules before the arbitrary deadline triggered by Nauru in 2021.
After the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed negotiations, the ISA is expected to talk about what to do with those applications at its July meeting. And so far it seems there is still a long way to go before there is actual regulation. “One of the things that we haven’t really debated and disagreed on during the ISA is what levels of damage are considered acceptable and what levels of damage are not acceptable. We don’t even agree on it yet. So it’s going to take a long time,” says Singh.
More than a dozen countries have called for some kind of moratorium or pause on deep-sea mining, and Switzerland joins their ranks this week. “If you are still faced with this lack of scientific information and uncertainty, that is exactly why countries like Switzerland say there should be a moratorium, to have breathing space so that there is not this endless pressure to develop regulations, and in instead, they spend their time doing scientific research and trying to understand what’s down there,” said Duncan Currie, political and legal adviser to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition who has also pushed for a moratorium.
There is also a draft resolution on the table in July calling on the Seabed Authority not to approve work plans for proposed mining projects until all regulations are in place. It could amount to a de facto moratorium on deep sea mining if passed. But that requires the approval of two-thirds of the ISA Assembly members who show up, and the Assembly includes delegates from 167 different countries and the European Union. So there is still plenty of political bickering ahead.