When I mention that the global mining industry is eyeing the deep seabed as the next frontier in mining I am commonly met with gasps of disbelief and dismay. That gut reaction is often followed up with sensible exclamations about the fact that the world’s oceans are already overstressed by contaminants from human activity, such as plastics, and by overfishing, and, from those in the know, by acidification. Unsurprisingly, these apprehensions do not factor into the rapacious ambitions of industry pitchers for deep-sea mining, nor do they—another gasp of dismay—appear to temper the outright enthusiasm for this new form of mining shown by some highly placed officials in relevant UN bodies.
To overcome the aversion of a public already overwrought by reports of species loss, whales on the brink of extinction and the various horsemen of the climate apocalypse—drought, fires, floods, heat, sea-level rise, food insecurity and forced migrations—deep-sea mining’s frontier investors are surpassing themselves in the propaganda department. The front runner in this regard is a private Canadian company out of Vancouver called DeepGreen Metals Inc.
One of DeepGreen’s early promotional videos, DeepGreen—Metals for our Future, drives home lofty public messages that need to be critically interrogated: deep-sea mining is less environmentally and socially destructive than terrestrial mining; it is necessary in order to save the planet from climate change; and deep-sea mining, and indeed DeepGreen itself, come highly recommended, as both are enthusiastically promoted by the secretary-general of the UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA). The private pitch of deep-sea-mining promoters is likely more focused on the bottom line: there is untapped wealth in them thar ocean depths for the savvy frontier investor ready to undertake an exciting new experimental mining adventure. DeepGreen’s CEO, Gerard Barron, concluded a sales pitch on the commercial and societal benefits of deep-sea mining in February 2019: ‘…whether you invest in a company like DeepGreen or not, everyone is a sucker for the story’.
DeepGreen’s focus is on polymetallic nodules found on the seabed in international waters of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the Pacific Ocean, an area covering some 4000 kilometres and roughly the size of the continental United States. These lumpy baseball-size nodes lie at depths of some 4000 to 6000 metres and contain primarily nickel, cobalt, copper, manganese and iron oxides. The two other targets for deep seabed mining are hydrothermal vents, typically found at depths of 1000 to 4000 metres, and cobalt-rich crusts, typically found on seamounts at depths of 800 to 2500 metres. Hydrothermal vents are believed to have hosted the earliest forms of life on earth and are famous for their abundant array of endemic species that feed on bacteria and other single-celled organisms that, remarkably, do not derive energy from photosynthesis but from the chemicals spewed out by the vents. The massive sulphide deposits built up around these vents contain copper, gold, silver, zinc and lead. Crusts that form on seamounts contain primarily cobalt and also manganese, iron, copper, nickel and platinum.
These geographic features of the deep sea are thrilling would-be miners, as the metals they contain are commonly more highly concentrated than on land, and advancing technology makes them potentially accessible for the first time. The feverish rush to lay claim to large swathes of the seafloor has all the hallmarks of the gold rush that once drew hordes of prospectors to the Wild West, including colourful claims of fabulous treasure lying ready for the reaping on the seafloor. Former UK prime minister David Cameron reportedly pledged to bring wealth from the seabed to the United Kingdom, claiming possible values of £40 billion over thirty years. Not to be outdone, The New Economy claimed that the industry ‘could be worth as much as $1trn to the US economy each year—the value of all the gold deposits alone on the seafloor is estimated to be around $150trn. It’s not hard to see why investors are getting excited’. Indeed, speculators are already making profits without a deep-sea spade in the ground.
To date, twenty-nine exploration licences have been granted in extraterritorial waters, called the Common Heritage of Mankind in UN speak. Granted by the ISA, which has jurisdiction over the seabed in this area, the licences cover some 1.5 million square kilometres in the southwestern Pacific alone (claims also exist in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans). The licences are held jointly by industrialised countries such as China, Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Russia, as well as small Pacific island countries such as Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga and the Cook Islands, and subsidiaries of corporations, such as Lockheed Martin (UK Seabed Resources), and Canada’s DeepGreen (Nauru Ocean Resources Inc.) and Nautilus Minerals Inc. (Tonga Offshore Mining Limited).
No exploitation, or mining, licence has yet been issued for any of these claims in extraterritorial waters: the ISA is still ironing out some details, such as novel governance regimes and brand-new environmental regulations. The first exploitation licence was issued for a project in territorial waters: the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) granted Nautilus a mining licence in January 2011, but the company’s Solwara 1 project has already tanked. Faced with concerted, vocal and growing community opposition, and apparently insufficient ‘suckers’ for the Nautilus story, the company is now facing bankruptcy. The state of PNG is on the hook for about US$125 million, which it borrowed after Nautilus used arbitration to force the state to live up to its commitment to assume and finance a 15-per-cent stake in the venture. However, some early investors in Nautilus, such as Barron, made a profit: Barron ‘turned a $226,000 investment into $31 million’ in six years before exiting in 2007. It was the founder of Nautilus, David Heydon, who created DeepGreen in 2011 and brought Barron into that company as CEO.
Perhaps if hydrothermal vents and deep-sea nodules could serve solely as inspiration for speculative investing, all would not be so dire. But investors are applying intense pressure on the ISA to finalise the deep-sea-mining regulations, not simply to create another major bump in their investments—which of course it will do—but to open the door to putting massive mining machines onto the seafloor. The ISA has proved to be an all-too-willing and shadowy agency, as pointed out by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, and Greenpeace:
The ISA has recently rejected the establishment of an environmental committee to better include environmental considerations in its functioning, and key environmental information is not public. Its Legal and Technical Commission meets mostly behind closed doors, and its composition is such that biological and ecological considerations are underrepresented.
So what is at stake? Each of the metal-rich geological features that are of interest to miners is slowly revealing itself to be an incredible ecosystem. In spite of existing at great depths, under immense pressure, in very cold water and in inky darkness, hydrothermal vents, polymetallic nodules and cobalt crusts host diverse, mostly undiscovered and scarcely studied creatures that have amazed the few humans who have seen them in their natural habitats. Hydrothermal vents and cobalt crusts host an abundance of organisms. Those on cobalt crusts have great diversity; many of these creatures are long lived but slow to reproduce and may exist only in certain areas. Those on hydrothermal vents are abundant, though thought to be less diverse, and are often unique to a particular vent. Polymetallic nodules host a wide variety of species, but they are spread more thinly; very few have been identified, but they are also thought to be long lived and slow growing. The habitats around hydrothermal vents are, according to deep-sea biologist Cindy Lee Van Dover, ‘relatively rare on the sea floor, and they’re different from one site to the next because the animals have adapted to the fluid chemistries’. The deep ocean expanses of polymetallic nodules are among the least-disturbed ecosystems on earth. Each of these geological phenomena of the deep sea have taken a very long time to form. Cobalt crusts grow at a rate of 1 to 6 millimetres per million years. Each polymetallic nodule, commonly between 5 and 10 centimetres in diameter, has grown by 2 or 3 centimetres every million years. Furthermore, as trillions of these baseball-size polymetallic nodules lie spread in a thin layer on the surface of abyssal plains, an extensive area would be disturbed if they were to be sucked up by the huge tread-wheel-driven machines envisioned for this task. While the chimney-like structures associated with hydrothermal vents can grow by 40 centimetres over five days, it is unknown whether vent species can recover once a vent chimney has been removed by mining.
While mining methods differ for each of these targeted geological features, deep-sea marine experts agree on the following points: crusts and nodules will take millions of years to reform; entire unusual species that we have never had a chance to study will be lost in the mining of all three types of ecosystem; and the dense sediment plumes that will be created as the seabed is disturbed and the pumping back down of process effluent will negatively impact and smother species over many more kilometres. Recent peer-reviewed papers by marine scientists have titles such as ‘Deep-Sea Mining With No Net Loss of Biodiversity—An Impossible Aim’ and conclusions such as ‘Seabed mining will cause irreparable damage to marine ecosystems’.
So, let us revisit the messages in DeepGreen’s Metals for our Future video. DeepGreen maintains that deep-sea mining is less environmentally and socially destructive than terrestrial mining. Nautilus tried the same spin, which the Deep Sea Mining Campaign adeptly refuted as Nautilus fought to counter vehement opposition to the Solwara 1 project by PNG coastal communities—these communities had already noticed a negative impact on their subsistence livelihoods and cultural practices related to marine species such as sharks as a result of Nautilus’ exploration activities offshore. While it is fascinating to see a new breed of would-be miners throw their terrestrial counterparts under the bus and expose the immense environmental and social harm done by mining on land, this is hardly an argument for opening up another entire ecosystem to exploitation by this rapacious industry, especially an ecosystem as immensely fragile and little understood as the deep sea. In fact, the comparison with terrestrial mining provides many arguments to show why deep-sea mining is a terrible idea, including, just as a start: it is much more challenging, technically and financially, to produce comprehensive baselines in the deep sea than it is on land; it is completely unclear how credible toxicity testing could be done in a deep-sea environment; independent scrutiny by communities, NGOs, independent scientists, media and so on would be much more limited; when things go wrong, such as spills, pipe breaks or unpredicted impacts, it would be much more difficult, nay impossible, to rehabilitate the unintentionally impacted area; modelling of the likely impact zones of toxic sediment plumes created by all forms of deep-sea mining is in its infancy; there is zero experience to draw on regarding impacts and mitigation at each step of the mining process; and the impacts of disturbances in the deep sea on critical food security, livelihood and commercial activity related to species such as tuna are not well understood.
DeepGreen maintains that mining the deep sea is necessary to avert the global climate crisis. Barron casts himself in the company’s video not as a mining CEO or a profit-seeking frontier investor but as a humanitarian eco-warrior, concluding, ‘it is a big responsibility on our shoulders’. The argument is simple: the green economy requires metals for such things as wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries for electric vehicles. While this is true, there is currently no global shortage of critical metals and minerals such as cobalt or lithium. Furthermore, technology is rapidly evolving to reduce or replace cobalt use, recycle lithium, develop urban mining of all kinds of waste products and even, according to experts, ‘biomining to extract rare earths from electronic wastes using microorganisms…use of sodium and magnesium in place of lithium, or alternative batteries based on graphene, hydrogen fuel cells, or even water and table salt. BNEF [Bloomberg New Energy Finance] has said new battery chemistries will probably shift to different source materials after 2030’. There are even reports of batteries using hemp rather than lithium-ion.
Finally, the DeepGreen video prominently features the secretary-general of the ISA, Michael Lodge. Lodge is on what appears to be a DeepGreen vessel, he wears a hard hat with the DeepGreen logo on it, and he both makes the case for deep-sea mining and discusses the ‘partnership’ DeepGreen has with the ISA. It is remarkable, and perhaps telling, that the head of this UN agency, which is tasked with environmental protection of the seabed in the Common Heritage of Mankind, and expects to soon become the regulator and issuer of mining licences for a whole new extractive industry, seems to be oblivious to the appearance of conflict of interest inherent in appearing in DeepGreen’s promotional video. Lodge has yet to respond to a recent report that raises concern about corporate capture of the ISA’s mining-code drafting processes.
It should be obvious that we cannot save the planet by continually expanding our exploitation of it and by trashing new, as yet unexploited ecosystems, such as those in the deep sea. It has taken time for communities and governments to become aware of the existential threat to our oceans, to global biodiversity and to life on earth posed by deep-sea mining. Within the last year the call for a ban or moratorium on the development of regulations by the ISA, and on the practice of deep-sea mining itself, has grown louder. The call is being made by NGOs and civil society organisations such as the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and Greenpeace, individuals such as Sir David Attenborough, and also by governments of Pacific island countries; even the European parliament has called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
Critical to the effort to protect the deep sea from mining is the need to review the role of the ISA in governing both the protection of the deep seabed as our ‘common heritage’ and its exploitation by for-profit corporations. This agency and its secretary-general have proven themselves to be deeply conflicted and captured by the corporations they are meant to regulate. It is time for a global treaty that will protect the entire international deep seabed from industrial exploitation.