Will Deep Sea Mining Suffocate Ocean Conservation?

Without major attention and funding, experts fear marine sustainability goals for 2030 will go unmet.

When Fijian diplomat Peter Thomson started campaigning for the oceans back in 2010, there was a lack of momentum for ocean policies. Now, he is the UN secretary general’s special envoy for the oceans, and as the UN’s 2030 deadline for reaching its sustainability goals approaches, he’s optimistic about the possibility of preserving 30 percent of the planet for nature by the end of the decade.

“It’s very ambitious, but we must do it, because if we don’t do it we have this vast swell of biodiversity loss, which might have existential implications,” he says.

Nations are split over deep-sea mining. While the ocean floor could yield essential minerals for green energy, much of the seafloor remains under-studied and under-protected. Photo of deep sea coral by NOAA Ocean Exploration, Northeast US Canyons Expedition.

Oceans do the bulk of the work in balancing Earth’s climate. But they are taxed. As ocean temperatures rise and acidity increases, marine life faces major disruptions. Conservation efforts are essential for the ocean to be a part of the climate solution — and for the preservation of marine life, a value unto itself.

However, in recent years, the debate over deep-sea mining has been taking up a lot of attention and resources from ocean conservation. During the World Ocean Summit in Lisbon in March, several delegates said they worry this is undermining marine research and the UN’s ocean sustainability goals.

Last month, the UN International Seabed Authority (ISA) opened two weeks of negotiations over the mining of critical minerals like copper, cobalt, and rare earth elements, which are sought by both the clean energy and military industries. The ISA has until 2025 to finalize regulations that will dictate whether and how countries can pursue deep-sea mining in international waters, and it is now under global scrutiny over how it plans to handle seabed mining in an era of climate-driven environmental devastation.

While exploratory mining has occurred at a small scale, deep-sea mining has not yet been undertaken commercially. Most observers expect it to start by the end of this decade, but there remains much debate. Norway and the island nation of Nauru, for example, are leading the charge for exploration and extraction, while Germany and Canada, as well as the European Parliament, have called for national and regional moratoriums.

In 2019, Thomson had called for a 10-year moratorium on deep-sea mining, to allow for a decade of proper scientific research of his country’s economic zones and territorial waters. Much of Fiji’s waters, as well as adjacent international waters, include prospective deposits of critical minerals, though little is known of about how deep-sea mining will impact key marine ecosystem and or its impact on tourism and fishing.

All this debate could become a potential distraction, delaying governments and other entities from working on other marine conservation policies.

Thomson says that UN governance tools, such as the Regional Seas Program, provide the best way to designate 30 percent of Earth’s ocean as protected by 2030, through an initiative known as 30x30. And greater coordination among nations and within the international body has already begun. According to Thomson, people at UN environmental agencies aren’t working in silos anymore. Now everyone talks about the triple crisis: climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.

“I think we are taking the challenge on,” he says. “We are implementing the Paris Agreement, and on pollution we have the Plastic Treaty coming up. Personally, I am looking ahead all the time. … What’s the alternative? As a grandfather I cannot accept despair.”

​Peter Thomson, who is now the UN envoy for oceans, has long contended that deep-sea mining should not be held in some places until proper scientific research takes place. Photo by UNCTAD/Flickr.

But the challenge is great. For starters, world nations have met only 25 percent of the 2020 funding goal for ocean sustainability. Keith Lawrence, project director at Pew Charitable Trust, says developed nations are falling woefully short on the commitment they made under a UN plan to provide $20 billion per year to developing countries for biodiversity by 2025. “Unless new financing sources are provided quickly, they could reach less than half of that target,” he says.

Ana Queirós, a professor of marine ecology and climate change at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and University of Exeter, says more action and more finance are needed to conserve ocean biodiversity and protect ecosystems like coastal mangroves, seagrass beds and salt marshes that act as significant carbon sinks — reservoirs that absorb the atmosphere’s carbon.

While programs focused on conserving and restoring ocean and coastal ecosystems for climate, like the Blue Carbon Initiative and the Global Ocean Decade Program for Blue Carbon (GO-BC), are helping scientists, governments, and the private sector work in better coordination, Queirós says the pace is still too slow.

“As a scientist I am concerned about the monetization [through carbon credits] of this ocean momentum by actors not necessarily interested in preserving ocean health,” she says. “The ocean is not a commodity, but a great asset through its role in planetary carbon cycling and storage. It must be thought of as part of a wider portfolio of solutions that include, and are dominated by, strong curbs in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Curbing carbon emissions remains relevant, as proponents of deep-sea mining claim that minerals harvested from the sea floor — at depths of 200 meters and greater below the ocean surface — are important components for batteries used in electric vehicles and thus the drive to abandon the extraction and use of fossil fuels.

But critics across the Pacific and around the globe fear deep-sea mining could devastate fragile and still poorly understood ecosystems at the bottom of the sea. There is growing support for a moratorium on deep-sea mining to allow time to gather more scientific information on deep-sea ecosystems. Last year, for instance, a group of Pacific Island nations signed the Udaune Declaration, adopting a moratorium on deep sea mining within its member countries’ territorial waters.

Critics also point out that seabed mining just doesn’t make financial sense.

Operating complex machinery in corrosive salt water at near-freezing temperatures under thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch, can be extraordinarily challenging, Victor Vescovo, a private equity investor and creator of the Five Deeps Expedition, pointed out in a talk on the economics of deep sea mining in 2022. He cited how The Metals Company, one of the leading firms pushing for deep-sea mining, presented projections with $13.1 billion value of metals targeted by their first project, but with a $7.1 billion cost to retrieve them.

The high costs involved in such projects and low return on investment is another compelling reason to avoid deep sea mining, he said.

Others note that existing terrestrial stocks of nickel and cobalt, key battery elements, are already sufficient to meet future needs, and the demand for these minerals may fall soon as batteries become easier to recycle. New battery types using iron, sulphur, and sodium are evolving as well. Some experts worry that deep-sea ecosystems could be destroyed for the sake of metals that will only be needed for a few more years.

Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the famous aquanaut Jacques Cousteau and leader of the Proteus Ocean Group, says that we risk repeating history if there are no proper and very strictly monitored regulations for deep-sea mining in place, including severe non-negotiable penalties.

Cousteau is planning the world’s most advanced underwater research station, hoping to enable scientists and, innovators to develop solutions to the planet’s most critical concerns, including new medicinal discoveries, food sustainability, and the impacts of climate change.

In addition, security experts are also concerned about how ownership over ocean data consolidates power. States and corporations with access to such data, for example, can use new digital portraits of the ocean to more efficiently target specific locations for fishing and deep-sea mining efforts, they say. These experts are urging policymakers to consider a public ocean technology system that would help developing nations access and use data to inform their marine resource management plans.

In 2019, the ISA launched DeepData, a public database whose “main function is to host all data related to deep-seabed activities. Given the direct connection of DeepData with the regulator of a rapidly developing potential industry, critics are urging the ISA to work together with all stakeholders to ensure that DeepData can be used to make science-based, responsible policy decisions. As of now, they say, the platform contains too many gaps and inconsistencies to inform real-time decisions for the purposes of managing a new extractive industry.

For Cousteau, such problems are tenfold underwater, because they are out of sight, out of mind, and by the time we see the devastation, it’s too late for the next 1,000 years.

“Deep-sea mining it’s not repairable,” he says. “In the ways the laws are being proposed today, it’s going to be just as devastating as any kind of uncontrolled mining on land.”

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