The race is on to stop deep-sea mining

Graeme Green reports on why this is a critical year to stop destructive deep-sea mining from taking hold of the world’s oceans.
A Greenpeace activist holds a sign as he confronts the deep sea mining vessel Hidden Gem, commissioned by Canadian miner The Metals Company, as it returned to port from eight weeks of test mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone between Mexico and Hawaii, off the coast of Manzanillo, Mexico. November 16, 2022. REUTERS/Gustavo Graf

‘The ocean is a source of life for Pacific islanders,’ says Alanna Matamaru Smith, director of environmental NGO Te Ipukarea Society. ‘It supplies us with food and helps keep our planet cool. We need to start giving back to our ocean – not taking more and more from it.’

Based in the Cook Islands, Te Ipukarea Society is one of more than 100 organizations campaigning against deep-sea mining (DSM) as part of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.

Mining companies are desperate to exploit valuable deep-sea metals, such as lithium, copper and nickel, but have yet to start extraction.

Scientists, conservationists and activists fear industrial-scale strip-mining of the seabed would cause catastrophic damage to ocean habitats, destroying biodiversity. This would not only impact global fisheries, but also reduce humanity’s ability to combat climate change, as well as threatening the lives and livelihoods of islanders and coastal communities.

‘There are still too many unknowns about the potential environmental impacts of seabed mining,’ Smith argues. ‘Our oceans are already under stress from ocean pollution due to over-fishing and climate change.’

By introducing lights and noisy machinery, by creating dust clouds and by ripping up special seabed habitats that have taken millennia to form, it will disrupt everything

The clock is ticking. In June 2021, the Pacific island republic of Nauru triggered a legal mechanism, known as the ‘two-year rule’, on behalf of Nauru Offshore Resources Inc (NORI), a subsidiary of Canadian mining giant The Metals Company (TMC).

This move gave the International Seabed Authority (ISA) – the body with responsibility for regulating mining activity in international seabed areas – two years to finalize regulations governing the industry, or to allow mining companies to forge ahead under whatever regulations are in place at the time. With no finalized regulations in sight, deep-sea mining in international waters could begin this year

Calls for a moratorium

‘2023 is a critical year for decision-making on DSM,’ says Catherine Weller, Global Policy Director for international conservation charity Fauna & Flora, who are also part of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, alongside Greenpeace, Oceana, and Sharklife.

‘Over the last 12 months, momentum has shifted, with more voices saying “no” to the rush to mine the seabed, and common sense prevailing over short-term riches. That gives us hope that DSM won’t get the green light this year, but there’s still all to play for at the ISA.’

According to a recent Fauna & Flora report, damage caused by deep-sea mining would be extensive and irreversible. ‘This mining will happen in deep-sea ecosystems that we know very little about,’ Weller explains. ‘This uncertainty makes starting DSM – a destructive technology – an extremely dangerous idea.

‘By introducing lights and noisy machinery, by creating dust clouds and by ripping up special seabed habitats that have taken millennia to form, it will disrupt everything, with knock-on effects for the rest of the ocean.’

As well as the likely loss of deep-sea biodiversity, including species yet to be discovered, the report highlights probable impacts on ‘the functions and services deep-sea environments provide for humanity’, contributing to the climate crisis by disturbing marine sediment carbon stores and disrupting carbon cycling and storage processes.

‘There would likely be serious changes for humanity as we disrupt the role the ocean plays in our weather patterns and mitigating global heating,’ says Weller. ‘Overfishing, ocean pollution, and rising temperatures are already affecting things like fish populations. There are also concerns that heavy metals in the sediment disturbed by DSM could work their way up the food chain, with impacts on human health.’

Greenwash

Despite widespread opposition, mining companies are pushing to move forward. Alongside vast profits, mining companies have argued deep-sea minerals, such as copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese, used from car batteries to wind turbines, are necessary for a greener future.

‘Deep-seabed mining is a false solution to the climate crisis,’ Weller argues. ‘You also need to think about the climate change impacts of DSM – for example, disturbing carbon and methane sinks of global importance. Yes, it’s urgent that we decarbonize, but a circular economy could be a better way forward.’

Most of the exploration contracts supplied so far by the ISA have focused on the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ), an area 4,000-6,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, between Mexico and Hawaii. The ISA has also issued contracts for the central Indian Ocean and the north-west Pacific.

We are concerned about the loss of biodiversity when DSM starts and destroys the habitats and ecosystem, and the loss of livelihoods and food security for coastal communities. It’s an ecocide

Over the course of a 30-year mining licence, each operation could involve strip-mining around 10,000-12,000 square kilometres of seabed, causing massive sediment plumes and pollution, as well as noise and motion disruption, all of which could kill or disturb marine species for hundreds of kilometres.

At the UN Ocean Conference in Portugal in June 2022, Palau, Fiji and Samoa formally called for a global alliance to back a DSM moratorium, joined by the Federated States of Micronesia in July. France, Vanuatu, Chile, Costa Rica, and Ecuador have also raised objections to DSM until more information is known.

The ISA is obligated to act for the benefit of humankind. But questions have been raised over the organization’s transparency, accountability and inclusivity, including a lack of adequate consultation with communities whose lives will be affected.

A recent research paper, published in the journal Nature, stated that DSM lacks social legitimacy, as the decision-making process has neither included a broad range of stakeholders, nor been ‘fair, inclusive, and transparent’.

Looming threat

In 2022, the Cook Islands started a five-year exploration phase within national waters, with three mining companies granted exploration licences in their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). ‘There are reasons to be concerned about potential risks, including to fish stocks,’ says Alanna Matamaru Smith. ‘Even though no mining is allowed within 50 nautical miles, drifting sediment plumes could impact the islands.’

‘Our people have been consulted about mining within Cook Islands waters,’ Smith adds. ‘But these consultations by the government haven’t been balanced. There was an emphasis on the potential economic and social gains, with little attention on environmental impacts.

‘Mining companies have a lot of money, which goes a long way in small Pacific-island communities. They’ve convinced our government that the returns will be high, and in turn our government has recruited support from traditional community leaders, as well as sectors of the Christian religion, to spread the word.’

Tonga is also facing the threat of DSM in national waters. ‘In Tonga, 99 per cent of people live off the ocean and 89 per cent are in coastal communities,’ says Pelenatita Kara, Programme Manager at the Civil Society Forum of Tonga, who recently called for the protection of the Pacific Ocean from DSM and nuclear waste at the Civil 7 Summit in Japan.

‘We are concerned about the loss of biodiversity when DSM starts and destroys the habitats and ecosystem, and the loss of livelihoods and food security for coastal communities. It’s an ecocide.’

Additionally, Tonga is a state sponsor of DSM exploration within the international waters of the Clarion Clipperton Zone. ‘The Metals Company has an affiliate: Tonga Offshore Mining Company,’ Kara explains. ‘TMC metamorphosized from the previous Nautilus Minerals company. They carry with them the same people, with the same disregard for the environment, especially the Pacific.

‘It’s all about the money. What about the option of just leaving it there? There are other options for the climate change crisis if people in the Global North could change their lifestyle.’

‘Blindfolded by money’

Papua New Guinea is another frontier. ‘The issue of DSM in Papua New Guinea started back in 2008, when the PNG government gave an environmental permit to Nautilus Minerals, and in 2011, a Mining Licence ML 154,’ Jonathan Mesulam, founder of the West Coast Development Foundation and spokesman for the Alliance of Solwara Warriors. ‘There was very strong resistance, and the company was declared bankrupt in 2019. But in October 2022, we realized there was a new company that bought off Nautilus Minerals’ assets and wanted to pursue the Solwara 1 project on the west coast of New Ireland Province.

‘Our main concern is that this project is very risky and there’s uncertainty about the environmental impact it will have on our coastal communities,’ Mesulam continues. ‘Secondly, the PNG government doesn’t have any regulatory framework or legislation governing offshore mining. Thirdly, fishing is part of our daily survival, and the local and national economy, and we don’t know what will happen to the fish.’

Mesulam also believes DSM activity lacks legitimacy. ‘We have been resisting this project since 2011 and all our efforts presented through petition, media statements and protest marches, even the legal case, have fallen on deaf ears. The government and the investors continue to push for this project.

‘Decisions should be made based on common sense. It seems decision-makers are blindfolded by money. But we’re not giving up our fight. Everyone has a right to have a clean sea, to eat safe marine products and to enjoy a healthy living. The sea is our home.’