Deep-sea mining risks costing everyone – including mining companies – the Earth

A sea toad on the ocean floor
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Deep-sea mining is the subject of ongoing discussions at the International Seabed Authority (ISA). Such mining would pose substantial risks to marine life and ecosystems, as well as humans, which are not yet fully understood.

It stands to negatively impact many ocean dwellers, from small organisms who live on the seafloor to large marine mammals. Moreover, the ocean is the world’s biggest carbon sink. As the World Resources Institute has pointed out, mining could impact its carbon cycle through the destruction of deep-sea biodiversity, with implications for global warming.

Further, if deep-sea mining does go ahead, it could cost the Earth – financially speaking – for companies involved too. This is because experts say risks should be quantified and passed on to mining companies via the cost of contracts if the ISA does its due diligence in the ongoing deliberations.

ISA continues its deliberations

The ISA is currently working out the regulatory framework for deep-sea mining. This is a highly controversial emerging sector that hopes to scour the seabed in international waters for minerals.

A two-week-long session of the ISA’s Council concluded on 21 July, swiftly followed by a meeting of its Assembly.

The Assembly includes all the countries that are party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), whereas the Council is a 36-member-strong group that the ISA’s Assembly elects every four years.

The Council is responsible for debating and adopting the necessary regulations, and associated standards and guidelines, for deep-sea mining.

Read on...

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Two-year rule

Due to an arrangement it has with a mining firm called The Metals Company, the small island nation of Nauru triggered what’s called a two-year rule at the ISA in 2021. This effectively binds the ISA to consider applications for deep-sea mining following that two-year window.

Nauru’s triggering of the rule led to concerns that the Council had to finalise deep-sea mining regulations by the July meeting, otherwise the ISA may have to consider and approve mining without rules in place. As the Research Institute for Sustainability’s Pradeep Singh forensically laid out in a paper, however, this isn’t necessarily the case. Singh told the Canary:

It has been agreed already that an application being submitted does not mean that it would have to be approved, it can be rejected. Approval is not guaranteed and it can be rejected as well.

According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, the Council concluded its July meeting by committing to continue work on the regulations “with a view to their adoption” in 2025.

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ senior manager of ocean governance, Julian Jackson, provided further clarity on this. He said that the Council’s plan provides for the regulations’ adoption in 2025:

in the highly theoretical eventuality that they are ready – but the reality is that we are very, very far from completing any of the required elements.

Cost of deep-sea mining for companies

One of the myriad things that the ISA needs to determine is how much mining contracts should cost companies. Singh highlighted that:

Up until recently, the models that were being considered were set so low. They essentially were taking the approach that since this is a nascent new activity, it’s high risk and we need to entice investors to come and do deep seabed mining – and the way to entice them is to set the rates of payments so low that they are like ‘OK, it’s worth the risk’.

Singh described this as “absurd”, arguing that the cost needs to be set “much higher”, at least to begin with. According to Singh, this is because:

there’s so little evidence at this point in time to quantify the ecosystem services and what sort of benefits we have from not mining, that we need more time to study. But presumably those numbers are going to be high and exorbitant, and you need to factor that into the financial model when you determine how much contractors would have to pay and it needs to be significantly higher than the rates that they are talking about now.

Some countries, like Germany and Costa Rica, are pushing in this direction, Singh said. He explained that they proposed in a meeting last November:

that we need to have a study on the environmental costs of deep sea bed mining and externalities – and how we internalise these externalities in the financial model

Deep-sea mining risks high costs for ecosystems

The ocean provides a whole host of ecosystem services, from food to carbon storage. As Singh indicated, the environmental risks of mining are not yet comprehensively known. But some studies have pointed to its dangers.

In February, a paper by scientists from the University of Exeter and Greenpeace Research Laboratories warned that mining could pose a “significant risk to ocean ecosystems”. The paper focused on marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins, and porpoises. It spotlighted the impact of noise and disturbance from mining on them. The production and detection of sound is critical for the navigation and communication of marine mammals.

A further paper showed that fish fled an area subject to a small deep-sea mining test conducted by Japan. The area saw a 43% fall in fish and shrimp populations between a month and a year after the test. Another recent study pointed to mining posing a significant risk to tuna, particularly in light of their changing movements due to the climate crisis. This would impact the $5.5bn tuna industry. Unsurprisingly, groups representing companies with interests in this element of the wildlife trade are among the critics of deep-sea mining.

‘The implications are severe’

Providing a stark example of the unknown risks, researchers also revealed in May that they found over 5,000 species in a potential mining hotspot. Most of these species were not known to science.

Additionally, Singh said that concerns are growing about:

the implications of light in that deep, to creatures that are totally exposed to the full darkness and what light could do to them.

Moreover, he pointed out that the exploitation of mining companies’ primary target – mineral-rich nodules – poses a threat to ocean biodiversity. Singh said:

In the case of nodules, there’s more and more evidence that there are organisms that are endemic to them, so they only live on on the hard substrate of the nodules. They would be wiped out.

So the implications are severe.

As Reuters reported, advocates of deep-sea mining say they could create clay nodules to replace habitats for endemic organisms, in the uncertain event these organisms could bounce back from the mortality that mining causes. But according to a report from Planet Tracker, the cost of replacing nodules would be double that of extraction. According to Planet Tracker:

The cost of restoration would be so high it would be impossible for deep sea mining companies to pay for it and operate at a profit.

Contractors don’t do science

Many scientists argue that much more marine scientific research is necessary to understand the full environmental implications of deep-sea mining. Singh stresses that this research is distinct from what some mining contractors are already doing in exploration contracts. The ISA has already granted dozens of exploration contracts, which Singh describes as contractors doing “their groundwork in order to get an exploitation contract”.

The ISA’s secretariat is actively trying to conflate what the contractors are doing with marine scientific research, Singh warns. This conflation was evident in remarks by the general-secretary on 25 July, made during the Assembly meeting. Referring to the contractors’ exploration, Michael Lodge said:

rather than focus on doom and gloom scenarios, we should celebrate that today we know more on the ocean than any other time in human history.

Singh is adamant, however, that exploration by contractors doesn’t amount to marine scientific research. Only the latter, he says, can determine whether:

the science is telling us that this is not a good idea and we cannot go ahead with exploitation

The ISA secretariat, whose role is to implement the mandate of UNCLOS member states, has faced accusations over recent years that it is biased towards allowing mining to take place.

Deep-sea mining moratorium

In a statement at the ISA Assembly meeting on 24 July, the Pew Trusts’ Jackson highlighted the vast “job-of-work” that the ISA still has to do. This includes attributing liability, recouping compensation, and working out a payment regime, i.e. determining how any income will be shared between countries. The ISA also has yet to create a viable inspection and compliance regime and fully develop vital standards and guidances – such as those pertaining to the environment. Figuring out the criteria for assessing and evaluating mining applications is still on the to-do list too.

In light of this, Jackson emphasised that time and space are needed and urged the Assembly to heed calls for a deep-sea mining moratorium.

As the Deep Sea Mining Coalition has pointed out, 21 states so far have called for a precautionary pause or moratorium on any commercial exploitation. Meanwhile, many indigenous leaders, scientists, and financial institutions have spoken out against deep-sea mining too, variously calling for bans and pauses. As the Assembly meeting got underway, meanwhile, over 70 parliamentarians from 25 countries publicly called on all countries to support a moratorium.

Do for the deep sea what we did for whales

Mining proponents have questioned the legality of a moratorium due to UNCLOS providing for the exploration and exploitation of minerals, Singh highlighted. In response, the Pew Trusts commissioned an independent legal opinion on the issue. It suggests that a moratorium is not only legal but required by international law. This is due to scientific uncertainty, lack of a regulatory framework, and the ISA’s limited capacity for oversight and governance.

Singh also points to an example, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. He says:

We have a treaty on whaling that says you can go out and exploit whales. And yet the same regime has imposed a moratorium for 40 years now.

In other words, countries could do for the deep sea what they did for the whales that live in the ocean: press pause. This would give them breathing space to comprehensively assess and quantify all the potential damages. That includes all the damage to ecosystems, industries, and planetary health, that mining risks.

When the world understands the true cost of such extraction, it may determine it’s too high a price to pay. That goes for the companies dead set on deep-sea mining too.

Featured image via BBC Earth / YouTube

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