Deep-sea mining: Capitalism’s next destructive frontier

Issue 
deep sea
Mining companies are seeking to exploit an area of seafloor in the Pacific Ocean about the size of Europe, known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ). Image: Irina Iriser/Pexels

Transnational companies are pushing to mine the seafloor for valuable minerals used in electronics and batteries. Large-scale deep-sea mining involving the extraction of polymetallic nodules — small rocks formed over millions of years containing cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese — could be allowed by as early as July next year.

Mining companies — through slick greenwashing campaigns — argue that deep-sea mining is necessary to achieve the global transition to renewables. The metals extracted from the nodules are key components of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries.

But the argument that deep-sea mining is necessary for the renewables transition is a lie. A new report from independent research organisation SINTEF reveals that demand for minerals could be reduced by up to 60% with available technology and proper recycling systems.

Eliminating built-in obsolescence — manufacturers deliberately designing products to stop working after a certain amount of time in order to sell more — would significantly reduce metals use.

Batteries that do not need deep-sea minerals are already available. Indicative of this is big car companies — such as Volkswagen, BMW, Volvo and Renault — supporting calls for a global moratorium on deep-sea mining.

Jessica Battle, leader of the World Wildlife Fund’s No Deep Seabed Mining initiative, said that mining companies are “trying to leverage concern about the climate crisis into a rationale to profit from deep sea minerals”.

“We need to urgently transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but not at the expense of vast, untouched, biodiverse deep ocean ecosystems, which are also significant carbon sinks,” Battle said.

Mining companies stand to make huge profits and wreak environmental destruction, while positioning themselves as “leaders” in climate action.

Environmental impacts

Far from being the solution to an environmentally benign future touted by minerals companies, deep-sea mining would have potentially catastrophic environmental impacts. Various studies have predicted the harmful and potentially irreparable impacts of large-scale, industrial deep-sea mining.

In deep-sea mining, vehicles dredge the top layer of the seafloor, pipe the slurry to the surface, separate the polymetallic nodules from the sediment and dump the tailings back into the ocean.

The mining process produces large sediment plumes that spread for hundreds of kilometres, blanketing ecosystems and clogging the gills of sea animals.

Noise pollution from deep-sea mining operations is estimated to travel for more than 500 kilometres, potentially disrupting the migration patterns of animals sensitive to sound, such as whales.

The mine tailings contain mercury and lead, which are toxic to many organisms and could be carried further up the food chain. This would have knock-on effects, such as destroying the health and livelihoods of people who rely on healthy ocean ecosystems.

Mining companies are seeking to exploit an area of seafloor in the Pacific Ocean about the size of Europe, known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ). These companies have deliberately cultivated an image of the seafloor as a featureless moonscape devoid of life, to downplay the environmental impacts of mining.

However, scientists estimate that less than 10% of deep-sea species have been described — many believe deep-sea ecosystems could be as diverse as tropical rainforests. Mining threatens the rich biodiversity and habitats of mostly undiscovered species.

A research project discovered a species of bacteria in the CCZ in 2018 that may account for 10% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestered by oceans every year. About one-third of CO2 emissions are absorbed by underwater organisms and deep-sea mining could indirectly accelerate global warming by killing CO2-sequestering bacteria.

Under threat    

The deep sea has already been negatively impacted by human activity. A recent study revealed that the chemicals used to disperse oil spills are twice as toxic as oil to animals living deep below the surface. Plastic has been found in the deepest parts of the Mariana Trench.

When researchers visited an exploratory deep-sea mining site in the CCZ used in 1978, they found tracks made by mining vehicles were still visible on the seafloor — 26 years later. Biodiversity was also lower in the mining site than in surrounding areas.

Despite the recorded and predicted impacts of deep-sea mining, there are no laws in place to regulate the practice.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) — set up in 1982 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to regulate deep-sea mining — has been captured by corporate interests.

ISA secretary-general Michael Lodge publicly supports deep-sea mining, and has criticised scientists for voicing their concerns over the environmental impacts. Despite a lack of deep-sea mining regulations, the ISA has already granted 31 “exploration” permits to 22 contractors.

The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian deep-sea mining concern, completed a so-called mining “trial” in the CCZ earlier this month, which involved extracting more than 4500 tonnes of polymetallic nodules. Environmental campaigners condemned the ISA’s approval of the project, describing it as mining disguised as research.

A New York Times investigation revealed that, over the past 15 years, the ISA provided TMC with key information, such as the locations of some of the most valuable seafloor areas. It then allocated these areas for the company’s future use. TMC controls about half of the 500,000 square kilometre area supposedly set aside for developing countries.

The NYT investigation also exposed the revolving door between the ISA and TMC. Several employees hired by the ISA to draft mining regulations and undertake research now work as consultants for TMC or firms controlled by the company.

TMC plans to extract about 10 million tonnes of nodules every year for 25 years, predicting to make more than US$30 billion in profits.

False promises

Corporations like TMC claim that industrial deep-sea mining is an opportunity to help developing countries, particularly those in the Pacific Islands. Under the UNCLOS, private companies must be sponsored by a country to undertake deep-sea mining. It also requires that deep-sea mining revenue be shared equitably between countries, with particular consideration of developing countries. However, the current sharing model proposed by ISA means that 70% of the total profits would go to mining companies, 6% to ISA, 2–6% to developing countries and the remainder to the sponsoring country.

Despite this, a small number of Pacific countries have been drawn into supporting deep-sea mining as an opportunity for economic development.

The Nauruan government — which sponsors Nauru Ocean Resources Inc, a subsidiary of TMC — announced in June last year its plans to begin deep-sea mining. This triggered a “two-year” clause under the UNCLOS, which means the ISA must finalise regulations for deep-sea mining by July next year or start approving licences under the draft rules.

The decision was met with a backlash for allowing mining under rushed laws, and despite the overwhelming evidence of deep-sea mining’s environmental impacts.

Several countries have joined the chorus of calls from Indigenous communities, NGOs, scientists and environmental activists for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.

Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Micronesia, Palau and Papua New Guinea have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. Costa Rica, Chile, Germany, Spain and Panama have called for a “precautionary pause” on deep-sea mining, citing a lack of scientific evidence about the extent of impacts and insufficient environmental regulations.

French President Emmanuel Macron called for a complete ban on deep-sea mining at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) on November 7.