“We don’t even know the life down there”: Greenpeace sounds the alarm on destructive deep sea mining

This quote is from Greenpeace USA’s Arlo Hemphill, whom I spoke with recently in Kingston.

The frightening thing about the push – the rush – towards deep sea mining is that the consequences are impossible to predict in their entirety, because we simply don’t know enough about the vast deep sea, the largest habitat in the world. One thing we do know, however, is that the environmental destruction would be enormous. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is currently meeting in Kingston and will meet several times more this year, with the goal of putting in place a Mining Code to allow deep sea mining to start in June 2023.

The clock is ticking. June 2023 is not far away. Once the Mining Code is finalized on that date, all of the deep sea will be open to mining – that is, nearly half the planet.

Why has this happened, so suddenly and with such a short time frame? Well, a tiny Pacific island, Nauru (eight square miles) is partnering with a Canadian company, The Metals Company, which has the greatest capability to start mining currently. (Nauru has a highly dubious reputation as a prison camp on behalf of Australia for hundreds of asylum seekers for the past nine years; recently an agreement with New Zealand will allow the refugees to be settled in that country). Nauru has no money, having exhausted the reserves of phosphate that it used to export, and it is broke. So last summer it told the ISA that it wanted to start deep sea mining. This triggered an obscure “two year rule” at the ISA.

The tiny island of Nauru, which has been described as “a dumping ground for refugees,” has sparked the current rush towards deep sea mining. (Photo: Torsten Blackwood/Getty)

The clock is ticking.

By the way, Hemphill told me that the Canadian company also has prospecting licenses for Tonga and Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean. Large mining companies like The Metals Company are taking advantage of small islands and countries; it is very much a predatory relationship, said Hemphill. France and the United Kingdom also have licenses but have more control.

Unfortunately, the argument for deep sea mining centres around the current global move away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. There is an increased demand for batteries for electric vehicles, solar panels, offshore wind farms and the like, and the somewhat scarce metals that go into them. These include cobalt, manganese, copper, and nickel. There are nodules of these minerals on the sea floor.

Black, potato-sized polymetallic nodules scattered on the seafloor are drawing prospectors for their cobalt, nickel, copper, and manganese. Credit: 2019 Southeastern U.S. Deep-sea Explora-tion/Office of Ocean Exploration and Research/NOAA

Greenpeace’s position is that you don’t have to go to the seabed to obtain these metals, says Hemphill. In fact, many vehicle manufacturers are opposing this method. There is great potential for further scientific research, with the goal of achieving a circular economy – more than recycling, rather reusing and putting these minerals back into the economy in a truly sustainable way, so they don’t have to be searched for and extracted. A great deal of research is going on right now into these possibilities. Obviously, we don’t want to run out of these metals. But it is not necessary to plunder the last remaining untouched area of the planet to obtain them.

“The problem is, the technology is far ahead of the science, and we don’t understand all the science of the deep sea yet,” said Hemphill. He explained that deep sea mining would involve the basic destruction of the marine ecosystem. It would be like a “giant lawn mower or vacuum cleaner,” he added, stirring up the sea bed. This would create huge plumes of debris, that would smother coral reefs and have a major impact on everything that lives in the sea, including mammals such as dolphins and fish. Once the nodules of minerals are dug up off the floor, everything would be sucked up into one big tube onto the massive mining ships, where the minerals would be removed and the remainder thrown back into the sea.

Fujian Mawei Shipbuilding Ltd launched the world’s first deep sea mining vessel capable of working at a depth of 2,500 meters in East China’s Fujian province on March 29, 2018. [Photo/VCG]

The effect of these plumes is, Hemphill emphasized, impossible to predict. However, the noise would be tremendous, affecting marine mammals in particular – disrupting the complex communication systems of whales, for examples.

Two more terrible risks to this altogether devastating vision of the future: the impact on fisheries around the world would, inevitably, be catastrophic. And secondly, the natural mechanism of carbon storage in the deep sea floor would be destroyed. This could have disastrous effects on climate change. The sea is one vast carbon sink. How could we even be considering this, as the climate crisis deepens?

Tanya Brooks, Senior Strategic Communications Specialist with Greenpeace USA. She supports the campaigns on deep sea mining, plastics, oceans, and fisheries issues. (Photo: Greenpeace)

I asked about the the Caribbean – at this time there are no exploration licenses in our sea, but there are in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge near the Azores, and also part of the Indian Ocean. “The ISA has never said NO [to a prospecting license], not even once,” Hemphill observed).

Jamaican-born Tanya Brooks, who is Senior Strategic Communications Specialist with Greenpeace USA, pointed out that Small Island Developing States such as ours must be acutely aware and protective of our ocean, on which we depend so greatly for fishing, tourism, food security, and more (the Blue Economy would be greatly endangered by deep sea mining, it would seem to me). Partnerships like the Caribbean Climate Change Accelerator are to be encouraged.

Greenpeace fully supports the High Ambition Coalition’s global “30 By 30” initiative, by the way – see their final bullet point, below. I will be writing more about this from the Caribbean perspective very soon! Initiatives like the Half Earth Project of the E.O. Wilson Foundation (named after the great conservationist who died last year) tie in with all of this. The Half Earth Project is “a call to protect half the land and sea in order to manage sufficient habitat to reverse the species extinction crisis and ensure the long-term health of our planet.”

Meanwhile, do take a read of this op-ed on the 30×30 – co-authored by Jamaica’s Minister for Environment, Water and Climate Change Matthew Samuda and his counterpart in Grenada, Simon Stiell.

“Scientists are telling us that that protecting 30 percent of the planet is the minimum amount required to stabilize ocean and land. 30 percent must be fully protected,” Tanya Brooks told me.

Some countries are expressing concerns – in this region, Costa Rica, and in the Pacific the Federated States of Micronesia and Fiji. Also there may be a new-found ally in Germany, Greenpeace notes.

However, since I spoke with Hemphill, I have been having terrifying visions of fleets of monstrous ships patrolling the seas, their machines at the ready to scrape and grind and suck and destroy our beautiful, mysterious deep seas.

To sum up, here are Greenpeace’s bullet points (as usual, click on the highlighted links above and below to read more detail). Their message is simply: Stop and think! Slow down! Let us not hurtle towards the destruction of our oceans in this way. It will lead to our very own destruction.

After the two-year rule was triggered (see below), and with a bit over a year left, the International Seabed Authority is increasing the number of meetings to be held this year. The next meeting of the Council will take place from 21 March – 1 April 2022 to discuss how to start deep sea mining in the global oceans.
● The International Seabed Authority (ISA), headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica, is responsible for regulating deep sea mining in international seabed areas beyond national jurisdiction. The deep sea is the largest habitat on the planet.
● The ISA is also responsible for the protection of deep sea environments and species, however this obligation is largely ignored and the current focus is on speeding up the process to allow commercial mining.
● Despite growing resistance to deep sea mining, governments will discuss fast-tracking rules to allow mining of the oceans to start in June 2023. Seven meetings are scheduled in 2022, with two meetings of the Legal and Technical Commission, three meetings of the Council and meetings of the Finance Committee and the
Assembly. The schedule can be consulted here.
● The pace of work has been increased since the controversial ‘2 year rule’ was triggered, in June 2021, in order to speed up the adoption of the set of regulations that would allow the start of commercial mining. The small Pacific Island Nauru, working with a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Canadian corporate The Metals Company, used a procedure within the ISA to notify governments that it will apply to start full-scale deep sea mining in two years’ time, with whatever rules are in place at that time. This trigger has been criticised by both the African Group and members of the Latin American & Caribbean Group (that is Argentina, the Bahamas, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago) to significant outstanding issues for negotiation, from equity to environmental risks, when COVID-19 is still disrupting delegates from fully participating in discussions.
● The timing of this trigger coincided with The Metals Company’s merger and subsequent listing in NASDAQ, standing up the company’s claims that it will be able to start deep sea mining and produce revenue by 2024, a point criticised by Pacific-based activists who have led long-standing resistance to deep sea mining. The Metals Company is facing a $200m shortfall and is now involved in multiple legal cases (also here).
● Governments meeting at the Council will continue to discuss the adoption of a set of mining regulations and standards following the ISA Secretary-General’s proposed ‘roadmap’ that makes completing these rules by July 2023 the ‘primary focus’ of the ISA going forward, despite the regulator’s supposed mandate, and governments’ legal obligations, to protect the oceans. Scientists have warned of severe, long-lasting and unavoidable harm, including potential species extinctions and disruptions to carbon storage – and are calling for a pause of all efforts to begin deep sea mining.
● The ISA has faced criticism for never turning down an exploration licence application and requiring a $500,000 fee for each licence. To date, 31 contracts covering over 1.5 million square kilometres of the international seabed, an area four times the size of Germany, have been sold off for deep sea mining exploration.
● While the ISA and mining companies try to speed up negotiations, there is growing opposition to deep sea mining. Major car, battery and tech companies like Google, Samsung, Volkswagen, Volvo, BMW, Scania and Northvolt have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining and committed not to source any minerals mined
from the seabed. In September 2021, 81 governments and government agencies voted in support of a moratorium on deep sea mining at the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Discussion of these developments is not on the formal agenda of the ISA meetings.
● The deepest parts of the global oceans are one of the few places on the planet still not subject to large scale destructive human activities. Amidst a global ecological and climate crisis, they must be protected. Every time research is conducted in these ecosystems, new species are discovered. For instance, most of the >2000 faunal
species recently collected in the eastern Clarion Clipperton Zone, where over half (17) of the exploratory licences have been granted, are new to science.
● Governments must recognise the limits and problems in the existing system and agree on a strong Global Ocean Treaty at the UN that leads to ocean sanctuaries around the world – putting vast areas of international waters off-limits to destructive industries – as well as high standards for approving activities anywhere in the global oceans.
● Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign is pushing for at least 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2030, with a Global Ocean Treaty agreed in 2022 creating the legal framework to achieve this. Greenpeace has conducted expeditions to the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans to expose the threat of the emerging deep sea mining industry, and released reports providing an overview of the issue and an investigation into deep sea mining corporate ownership.

For more information on deep sea mining, the ISA and the Protect the Oceans campaign, contact Luke Massey on luke.massey@greenpeace.org.
Media contact: Tanya Brooks, Greenpeace USA Senior Communications Specialist, Tel: 703-342-9226, E: tbrooks@greenpeace.org

Huge deep-sea mining machines owned by Nautilus Minerals. Credit: Nautilus Minerals

10 thoughts on ““We don’t even know the life down there”: Greenpeace sounds the alarm on destructive deep sea mining

  1. Great article, Emma. The choice of illustrations is also excellent. Most of us don’t have a clue about the oceans, and take that absolutely critical resource for granted.


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