Since the discovery of precious mineral resources on the ocean’s deep seabed decades ago, companies and countries have been eyeing how they can mine this potentially billion-dollar jackpot. This is an ocean gold-rush waiting to happen, in a part of the planet that is more alien to us than the moon. As the International Seabed Authority develops new mining rules to move seabed mining from theory to practice, scientists are sounding the alarm bells that biodiversity loss will be unavoidable and we may lose species that we never even knew existed. Shoulda destructive activity such as commercial deep-sea mining even be given the green light in the first place?
What is deep-sea mining?
- Seabed mining has been happening for decades around the world in shallow waters for gravel, sand, phosphates, gold and diamonds.
- Several decades ago, scientists discovered deep down that the ocean’s floor has rich deposits of rare earths metal, such as manganese, copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium, platinum, and a medley of minerals called rare earth elements.
- These precious minerals are a prized possession for industry, and are used in electronics to build anything from computers to mobile phones or electric cars.
- Prospectors for deep-sea mining are now eyeing these resources further out from shore on the ocean floor beyond national jurisdictions.
- Until now the high costs to build machines to operate commercially in these extreme conditions has been too prohibitive. However, some contractors are now confident in their technical capacities to mine the seafloor at depths of up to 6000 metres.
- Commercial deep-sea mining under 500 metres could move from a dream to reality within the next 5-10 years.
- Within country waters deep-sea mining is progressing in Papua New Guinea and Japan. Recently Pacific Island Countries also committed to long-term sustainable management of deep sea minerals and are putting the finishing touches to a draft deep-sea mining agreement in the region. It begs the question: can deep sea mining ever actually be sustainable?
- China has been developing underwater drilling, mining platforms that could be launched after 2020 to take samples on the bottom of the South China Sea; it also plans to probe the Mariana Trench- the deepest part of the Ocean.
- Currently China controls the world’s supply of rare earths metals found on land, but other countries, such as India or Papua New Guinea are also looking to get in on the deep sea action.
International Seabed Authority
- The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a body established in 1994 under the UN Convention of Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to regulate all mineral-related activities- in particular deep-sea mining- in the international seabed area beyond the limits of national jurisdiction on “behalf of mankind as a whole”.
- Only UNCLOS signatory states or contractors working for a signatory state can mine in these areas beyond national jurisdiction, if they have a license from the ISA.
- Nobody is mining in the area yet, and so far only exploration licenses have been issued. License applications to the ISA for commercial deep-sea mining in international waters are rapidly increasing.
- ISA is currently developing new regulations for seabed mining and how they’ll be enforced. They hope to finally approve this new mining code in 2020. Now is a crucial time for negotiations of these new rules.
- As part of the ISA, a financial payment system is being set up in terms of royalties and profits from mining of resources that are the common heritage of mankind.
Deep sea mining Threats
- Environmental campaigners are very concerned about the impact these mining activities will have on Earth’s final frontier– the deep seabed floor.
- The deep sea has an important role in regulating the planet’s temperature and storing greenhouse gases. It is also not a dark and barren place, but home to rich marine life.
- A growing number of deep-sea scientists, environmentalists and coastal communities have been voicing concerns about the impacts of deep-sea mining on the ocean environment, as well as the livelihoods and well-being if coastal communities.
- Concerns have also been raised on the ISA process, that seems much more skewed towards commercial interests than conservation of a vast area of the common heritage of mankind.
- These concerns are gaining political support. The European Parliament overwhelmingly voted for a resolution calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the risks to the environment are fully understood.
- With every deep sea expedition unveiling new weird and wonderful species, can we give the green light to mine these areas when scientists don’t even know what the effects of mining could be or what we could be losing?
- Scientists say biodiversity loss from deep-sea mining will be unavoidable and a number of environmental groups argue that deep sea mining should be banned altogether, and efforts should go into better product design and recycling, rather than mining, to fill the demand for deep-sea raw materials.
What needs to happen?
- The ISA must agree regulations that ensure deep-sea habitats are effectively protected BEFORE deep-sea mining has started, rather than when it is too late.
- The precautionary principle must be applied before any deep-sea mining is approved due to inevitable biodiversity loss and lack of adequate scientific studies.
- Given that 2020-2030 is the UN decade of ocean science, many are calling for a precautionary pause on any deep-sea mining for the decade while we learn more and can then make more informed decisions.
- Given the predicted damage, it is much wiser to focus on designing products that last or can easily be repaired, as well as recycling the valuable materials contained in over 90% of the world’s electronic waste, rather than developing expensive and potentially very damaging new technologies to exploit new resources.
- A 2016 report questions the claim that deep-sea mining is necessary to fulfill the mineral demands of renewable energy technology. Rare earths are used in a number of different renewable technologies, but according to the report, their availability is not critical if we choose the right technologies and are careful to recycle the materials used as much as possible.
- Industry also have a clear role in rejecting the demand for these resources, such as Apple that has already committed to a no-mining future– including deep sea mining.