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Diving into the controversy: The pros and cons of deep sea mining

The controversy around deep sea mining featured has been in the news again this week with proposals to allow deep sea mining to go ahead taking centre stage at global talks in Kingston, Jamaica.  The talks  started on 11th July and will run to 28th July.  The meeting is being held by the International Sea Bed Authority (ISA) and follows  the expiration of a two year ban on the practice of deep sea mining when countries failed to reach agreement on new rules.  The aim of the meeting is to agree guidelines for the process of harvesting minerals from the ocean bed.

The ISA is the United Nations body responsible for making rules about the world’s ocean floor and for considering and issuing permit applications for deep sea mining in the high seas.  Whilst countries have control of their ocean territory and special economic areas, the high seas and the international ocean floor are governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).  This rule is considered to apply to all countries whether or not they are a signatory to UNCLOS and is based on the presumption under UNCLOS that the seabed and its mineral resources are “the common heritage of mankind”.  Therefore the resources must be managed in a way that protects the interest of humanity with the idea to share economic benefits, support scientific research and protect ocean environments.

The drive by a number of countries to phase out the sale of new internal combustion cars and increase the number of ‘green’ electric cars together with the push for renewables such as wind turbines and solar panels to displace fossil fuelled plants all means an increase in demand for batteries.  Adding in other factors such as depletion of land-based resources; technological advancements; economic potential; geopolitical considerations and climate change and sustainability all has the effect of creating the drive to expand mining from land to the deep-sea for key minerals required for battery production such as  lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, manganese and aluminium. Some allege that if deep-sea mining is give the go-ahead it has the potential to create a trillion dollar industry.

Mining companies are increasingly interested in deep sea mining as technological advancement in deep-sea exploration and extraction have made it feasible to extract minerals from the ocean floor with robotic systems, remotely operated vehicles and advanced mapping techniques all having the impact of making it easier to access and extract minerals in deep-sea environments.

However there is increasing opposition to deep-sea mining not only from marine scientists and NGO’s but also from around 200 countries around the world who are calling for a continued pause or moratorium due to environmental concerns.

Marine scientists as well governments argue that there is currently too limited research available on the deep ocean to understand the impacts of mining on the animals and plants that live there.  There is the potential for techniques used for deep-sea mining to generate significant noise and light pollution, release sediments and heavy metals or toxins which could enter the food chain and have long lasting effects on marine life. Reference has also been made to deep-sea mining causing irreversible damage as deep-sea ecosystems have slow recovery rates due to low productivity.  Therefore if damage occurs it could take decades for the ecosystems to recover if at all and with no known information of the implications  this could have on the marine environment.

A spokesman for BMW that supported a moratorium in 2021 stated at the time “It’s the fear that everything we do down there could have irreversible consequences”…..”there’s way too little evidence”.

Efforts are currently being made by a number of countries to find alternative strategies to meet the resource demand for battery production without resorting to deep-sea mining such as recycling, urban mining and responsible land-based mining as more sustainable approaches to resource extraction.  This could be achieved through innovation and circular economy practices.  There are also efforts underway to diversify mineral sources by developing chemistries to reduce reliance on the more problematic minerals extracted on land such as cobalt.

UNCLOS has stated that the ISA should complete rules governing deep-sea mining by July 2023 with countries and private companies being given the go-ahead to start applying for early or provisional licences if the ISA fails to approve the set of rules by July.  The pressure is therefore on the ISA to agree a Code that will govern deep-sea mining.   An open dialogue, collaboration and a commitment to sustainable practices will be key in shaping a long term sustainability future for deep-sea mining.