As world economies seek to reduce carbon emissions, they have increasingly pursued new forms of clean energy development. Minerals needed to transition to clean energy innovations, in particular for solar panels, wind farms, and electric vehicles, constitute the fastest-growing segment of mineral demand. Per the World Economic Forum, the transition completed so far has increased mineral need per unit of power generated by 10 percent, and overall mineral demand could increase by up to 500 percent in the future for some minerals used in energy storage applications.
To address this increased demand for minerals, countries and corporations have taken increased interest in beginning to mine in the deep ocean. Currently, interest is primarily in polymetallic nodules, potato-sized mineral rocks which contain key battery minerals, namely cobalt, copper, nickel, and manganese. These nodules, many of which can be found in a 1.7 million square mile area of the Pacific known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, are estimated to contain a quantity of minerals that exceeds the global terrestrial reserves. Permitting processes for deep-sea mining in international waters, such as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, are regulated by the UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA). Since 2001, the ISA has issued 31 permits for exploration and scientific research in the deep ocean, primarily for nodules but also other geologic formations with valuable minerals. As of July 9, these permits can be expanded to permit exploitation (industrial mining) of those resources.
Ongoing ISA Negotiations
The potential for exploitation permits to be granted in the near future has come amidst struggles to develop a comprehensive legal framework among ISA members for deep-sea mining operations. Since 2014, the ISA has been working to develop complete regulations, which would cover topics such as profit sharing, taxation, and legal and ecological guidelines, but they have yet to reach a compromise in the process, which has been fraught with tensions. In April 2022, the ISA was criticized by German diplomats for holding its legal and technical commission meetings behind closed doors, a move that diplomats decried as a lack of transparency. Compounding concerns about transparency, a bulletin service that provided independent reporting of the negotiations did not have its contract renewed for the April 2022 meetings, a decision ascribed to budget cuts. The move ultimately forced the bulletin to raise its own funding to attend the next round of meetings.
In March 2023, ISA head Michael Lodge was criticized by diplomats and government officials from Germany, France, and Costa Rica for overstepping his role as a neutral mediator and working in favor of those who want to accelerate the regulation-writing process. All these regulatory debates are occuring in the context of communications between the Canadian mining corporation The Metals Company (TMC) and the ISA dating back to 2007 discussing optimal areas for mining exploration, which while allowed, have been argued as running afoul to the principle of the ISA working with countries directly, not with multinational corporations.
The communications between TMC and the ISA take on greater significance when one considers TMC’s vested interest in the burgeoning deep-sea mining industry. The island nation of Nauru, who sponsors TMC to conduct research into deep-sea mining, triggered the so-called “two-year rule” of the ISA in 2021. Per the 1994 ISA Agreement on Implementation, this rule obligated the ISA to allow consideration of mining permits on July 9, 2023, with or without completed regulations in place. TMC hopes to begin mining in coming years and is closely watching the developments at the ISA; the latest media statement from TMC, dated July 24, expressed disappointment that regulations were not finalized by July 9 and conveyed hope they would be completed in November. The Nauruan branch of the company emphasized that it would like to wait until after regulations are completed to submit a permit, but also noted that it reserves the right to do so at any point.
The disagreements at the ISA driven seemingly by political and economic contentions are occurring in the greater context of concerns over the environmental impacts deep-sea mining could have. Among the primary concerns driving opposition to deep-sea mining is the potential for environmental harm created by disturbing the seafloor as nodules are extracted. Most troubling to scientists is the fact that mining could release carbon stored in the seabed and cause sediments to enter the ocean ecosystem in plumes hundreds of kilometers long. This release of sediments, as well as noise and light pollution associated with mining operations, may disrupt the abilities of animal species to survive. If these disruptions push sea ecosystems out of equilibrium, human societies that rely heavily on fishing could encounter economic struggles. The full extent of these implications is difficult to quantify, as scientific understanding of the deep ocean is still in its “infancy.” For example, recent studies have discovered that up to 90% of species found in the deep-sea are new to science.
Opposition to Deep-Sea Mining
In light of these potential risks and their uncertain nature, organized opposition to beginning industrial deep-sea mining now exists. A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) moratorium on sourcing material from the deep seabed has been joined by Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the European Parliament, as well as multinational firms such as Google and Samsung. Support in some form was expressed by over 15 countries at March 2023 ISA meetings. Such a restriction on mining the deep-sea would not be without precedent for remote regions: on Antarctica, all activity relating to mineral reserves (excluding scientific research, an analog to ISA exploration permits) is prohibited by the 1998 Environmental Protection Protocol, and modification of the protocol prior to 2048 must be by unanimous agreement.
Challenges of Mining on Land
Restricting mining operations to terrestrial mines as is done in the status quo brings its own set of concerns, as mining on land creates various economic and human rights challenges. The clean energy transition is contingent on access to sufficient mineral resources, and complications can occur at many stages of the process—ranging from political instability, to protective governmental policies on exports, to market manipulation. Allegations of human rights abuses in the mining process and environmental costs, such as land clearing and excessive water usage, also raise ethical questions about mining, which may worsen in severity with a complementary increase in demand for mined resources. Environmental risks presented are very similar to those faced in the deep ocean, in particular pollution, ecological damage, and release of greenhouse gas stored in soils that are disturbed during the mining process. For their part, TMC emphasizes the reduced environmental impact of deep-sea mining as opposed to terrestrial mining, citing research indicating that the seafloor has significantly less biodiversity and stores less carbon than terrestrial environments, and noting that mining in all locations carries inevitable risks of environmental degradation.
The risks of deep-sea mining are also being weighed in the face of potentially catastrophic climate change impacts from sea level rise on vulnerable, low-lying countries such as Nauru. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that Nauru, alongside the Maldives, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati, may be rendered uninhabitable by rising seas by 2100. The need to take decisive action on climate change explicitly underpins the Nauruan motivation per the Ambassador of Nauru to the UN Margo Deiye, who described a “bleak” trajectory for her country and called for emissions thresholds to be reached that would allow for responsible deep-sea mining. A Nauruan government statement regarding the triggering of the two-year rule highlighted Nauru’s vulnerability as a Pacific Small Island Developing State (PSIDS). The statement argued that Nauru could experience the benefits of more rapid social and economic development if a lower-impact source of clean energy metals is identified and commercialized, while at the same time helping to lower carbon emissions as necessary to reduce climate impacts. The desired economic benefits would certainly be possible, as TMC anticipates US$30 billion in earnings over two decades (the GDP of Nauru was US$150 million in 2022). Nauru is joined by Tonga and Kiribati in sponsorship of TMC, representing the presence of shared interest among PSIDS countries.
If clean energy transitions and electrification are pursued for decarbonizing economies, the need for minerals cannot be escaped. To be sure, both deep-sea and terrestrial ecosystems are liable to be substantially disturbed in mining operations. International organizations will do well to move quickly to increase our understanding of the deep-ocean and better inform mining decisions. Reluctance by governments and corporations to begin large-scale deep-sea mining due to unknown implications, as reflected by the WWF moratorium, is sensible, but a long-term holding pattern could prevent potential benefits from being realized and slow action to limit climate change. The UN observance of 2021-2030 as the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, alongside the existing Sustainable Development Goal 14 (which aims to conserve and sustainably use ocean resources), presents an opportunity to accelerate efforts to develop strong, well-informed frameworks for deep-sea mining as a comprehensive strategy. Better understanding a favorable balance between deep-sea mining and terrestrial mining can avoid both compounding serious damage on land and shifting burdens recklessly to the oceans.
As the ISA currently has 31 outstanding exploration permits, it is inevitable that more nations and corporations will enter the arena. TMC has stated that, at the conclusion of their Environmental and Social Impact Assessment program, they will no longer pursue an ISA exploitation permit if seafloor nodule mining is found to do more harm than good. Holding future players in the space to a similar standard, rooted in a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis that considers future mineral needs and terrestrial versus deep-sea mining practices, would provide a strong framework for responsible deep-sea mining in the future.