Rush to exploit the depths of the ocean worries environmentalists
Tiny Nauru is behind an impetus to accelerate negotiations on mining rules for the seabed, which could see fragile habitats open to exploitation as early as 2023
In a large building overlooking the sea in Kingston, Jamaica, national members of a little-known international organization are meeting for controversial talks that could open the world’s seabed to mining as early as July 2023.
The seabed is rich in mineral deposits, which could provide raw materials for making batteries for electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines. Potential mining companies see a lucrative opportunity to boost the energy transition.
Yet the cold, dark, and inaccessible deep sea is home to a vast array of life, which scientists are just beginning to discover.
Areas of commercial interest turn out to be some of the “most biodiverse places on Earth,” Diva Amon, a marine biologist from Trinidad and Tobago, told Climate Home News, with 70-90% of species discovered never seen before.
Too little is known about the depths of the oceans, their biodiversity and the role they play in carbon storage to fully understand the impacts the nascent industry will have, said Amon. “Whichever way you look at it, mining is going to be very destructive in the depths of the ocean. It is certain that this will be irreversible damage.
Still, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which regulates mining activities in international waters, is meeting from Monday to consider a roadmap for negotiating mining rules.
He proposes to finalize a mining code by July 2023, after receiving an ultimatum from the world’s smallest island state, Nauru.
Countries have been discussing deep sea mining for years. While some exploration activities are ongoing, no commercial extraction has started in international waters.
The reason for this hype is the mineral concretions on the seabed known as polymetallic nodules. About the size of a potato, they are thought to take millions of years to form and are rich in manganese, nickel, cobalt and rare earth metals, key components of electric vehicle batteries.
As the energy transition accelerates, demand for essential minerals could increase six-fold by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency. The offer is lagging behind.
A high concentration of nodules was found along an underwater geological fracture in the Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ).
The Republic of Nauru, having exhausted its own once-rich phosphate reserves, is one of the most vocal supporters of the exploitation of this potentially lucrative resource.
The ISA has awarded 17 contracts to countries and companies to explore the CCZ, including Nauru Ocean Resources Incorporated (Nori), a subsidiary of the Metals Company based in Vancouver and sponsored by the Government of Nauru. The Metals Company also has exploration agreements with Tonga and Kiribati.
In June, Island President Lionel Aingimea wrote to the ISA board asking for the regulations to be speeded up, so Nori can formally apply for permission to mine the seabed.
Aingimea invoked a point of procedure never used before, known as the “two-year rule”. If the rules are not finalized by July 2023, the ISA will have to “review and provisionally approve” license applications anyway.
To meet the deadline, the ISA secretariat is offering nine weeks of face-to-face meetings throughout 2022, with countries urged to adopt the plan and start work this month.
The Metals Company argues that deep-sea mining is a less damaging alternative to the environment and society than land-based mining, which often takes place in tropical forests rich in biodiversity.
Although the company did not respond to questions from Climate Home, it pointed to the literature on its investor website, which includes a plan to start commercial production in the last quarter of 2023.
Deep seabed mining, he says, reduces the risk of carbon storage on land and does not require drilling or blasting because the nodules are not attached to the ocean floor.
The machines they call “collectors” would only remove nodules in the top five centimeters of seabed sediment, allowing “recovery to begin naturally and immediately.”
The company further describes the seabed as “an arid and common environment, like a desert, with a finite lifespan and no threat to indigenous lands”.
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For Amon, it is “a flat lie”. Life in the deep oceans develops and reproduces slowly, with studies finding very little recovery decades after the seabed has been disturbed. And the extent to which mining will impact the carbon cycle remains unknown.
“There isn’t enough science and there probably won’t be enough to make informed decisions for potentially decades,” Amon said.
There is also no guarantee that mining on land would decrease as a result. “One will not replace the other. We are therefore going to see the loss of biodiversity doubling, the impacts doubling, ”she said.
Amon is one of 621 marine science and policy experts to sign an open letter calling for a halt on seabed mining until “sufficient and solid scientific information has been obtained.”
This call for a moratorium is supported by a large number of civil society groups and NGOs, as well as automakers and IT giants, including Volkswagen Group, BMW, Volvo, Samsung, Philips and Google. The signatory companies have committed not to use deep sea minerals in their supply chains. Microsoft has adopted a temporary ban.
“Only a handful of people are talking about opening this new industrial frontier,” Louisa Casson, ocean activist at Greenpeace, told Climate Home. “But people hardly realize that this is something that governments and businesses are really considering.”
Part of the accountability gap is that ISA meetings are dominated by a few countries with a strong interest in deep sea mining. “Few governments show up because few are interested,” Casson said.
Nauru’s ultimatum pushes governments to take a stand on the issue. And some have already done so.
African countries and a bloc of Latin America and the Caribbean wrote to the ISA to express concerns about the forced deadline, saying more time was needed to understand the impacts of the deep and fleshed-out regulatory disruption. .
In the Pacific, Fiji and Vanuatu have called for a ban on seabed mining until 2030.
And at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) world congress in September, 81 member countries supported a non-binding motion for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. Government agencies in Norway and Norway Belgium were in the minority to reject the motion. Germany, which holds the exploration rights, supported the moratorium.
However, a moratorium is not to be discussed at the ISA meeting. “We think that should be reflected in this ISA meeting rather than just agreeing to an arbitrary deadline,” Casson said. “The real question is, do we want this at all? Is it really necessary? ”
From some of the most climate-vulnerable countries on the planet, the answer is a firm yes.
Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati described seabed mining as “a welcome and exciting development” that can help accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels that threatens the very survival of their islands.
It “should be adopted by all who care about the climate future of our planet,” they wrote in a joint statement, saying it provides them with resources for sustained economic development.
Under the ISA regime, these mineral deposits were designated as “common heritage of humanity”. This means that the royalties from their commercialization will be distributed among all countries, taking particular account of the needs of developing countries. Discussions on establishing this mechanism have been particularly controversial.
“For the first time in history, an extractive industry regime will aim to alleviate some of the economic disparities that exist between the North and the South,” the islands explained.
Campaigners see less valid motives for the scramble for resources.
Matt Gianni, co-founder and policy and policy adviser of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an alliance of more than 60 international organizations, told Climate Home: “Nauru triggered this two-year rule to allow The Metals Company to be listed on the stock exchange. . “
Formerly known as Deep Green, the company merged with specialist acquisition firm SOAC to go public. Gianni said the company “needed to convince SOAC investors that this was a good deal and in order to do that they absolutely had to show that they would get a mining license.”
A few weeks after Nauru triggered the two-year rule, the two companies merged to form The Metals Company. It was listed on the Nasdaq in September, valued at $ 2.9 billion – a valuation that fell a month later after a key investor pulled out. The Ambassador of Nauru to the UN, Margo Deiye, Permanent Representative of the ISA, attended the registration ceremony.
The government of Nauru and the ISA did not respond to requests for comment.
“This [ISA] meeting and all the scramble to figure out what to do is not based on an ISA science-approach study, nor on the potential of deep-sea mining, nor on the extent to which it would impact on the environment and whether the world needs these metals. None of this happened, ”Gianni said.
“This is the tragedy of the whole process. It’s almost a joke. If the first business is allowed to operate and make money, more will pile up. “