Coral reefs grow in the waters of Tatawa Besar, Komodo islands, Indonesia, April 30, 2009.

The debate over deep-sea mining comes to a head 

Demand from the energy sector for metals to sustain the burgeoning renewable energy industry is expected to rise sixfold in the next 20 years, according to the International Energy Agency.

The World

Coral reefs grow in the waters of Tatawa Besar, Komodo islands, Indonesia, April 30, 2009. Rising demand for copper, cobalt, gold and the rare-earth elements vital in manufacturing smartphones and other high-tech products is causing a prospecting rush to the dark seafloor thousands of yards beneath the waves. The Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority has issued 27 separate 15-year contracts that allow for mineral prospecting on over 390,000 square miles of seabed in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Dita Alangkara/AP

A little-known intergovernmental body is meeting this week in Jamaica to discuss regulations that could open up the deep sea to mining within the next year and a half.

Demand from the energy sector for metals to make batteries, electric vehicles, solar panels and other components of the burgeoning renewable energy industry is expected to rise sixfold in the next 20 years, according to the International Energy Agency.

And investors are eyeing deposits on the seafloor to meet increasing demand.

But some scientists, environmental groups and several large companies disagree with the approach, as deep-sea environments are among the most pristine and least-understood on Earth. 

Related: Glasgow summit pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies faces an uphill battle

The hottest deep-sea mining prospect is the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, an expansive patch of the Pacific that stretches from Mexico to Hawaii.

The targets there, in waters 12,000 to 18,000 feet deep, are potato-shaped lumps of metal called polymetallic nodules.

“They literally just lie on the ocean floor like golf balls on the driving range.”

Gerard Barron, chairman and CEO of The Metals Company

“They literally just lie on the ocean floor like golf balls on the driving range,” said Gerard Barron, the chairman and CEO of The Metals Company, a Vancouver-based firm hoping to be the first to start mining those nodules in 2024.

“It’s a miraculous coincidence that they contain all the base metals that we need to build batteries,” Barron said.

Polymetallic nodules are made of copper, nickel, cobalt, iron, manganese and rare earth metals.

More than a dozen companies hold exploration permits to look for them in the international waters of the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. Several more hold permits for exploring cobalt-rich crusts and sulfide deposits formed near hydrothermal vents in other areas.

Related: ‘A heavy load to carry’: A day in the life of a negotiator at COP26

The Metals Company argues that collecting polymetallic nodules, which it plans to do with a rover crawling across nearly 2,000 square miles of seafloor a year, would be less destructive than mining minerals on land.

“It doesn't seem to make sense to be destroying our biodiverse rainforests to produce the metals that we need to be able to build an electric vehicle,” Barron said. “Surely, we must investigate where we can get these materials from with the lightest planetary touch, from an environmental perspective — but also a human perspective.”

Barron argues the best location for the lowest-impact mining is the deep sea, thousands of miles from the nearest land.

“The biggest concern is the lack of information,” said Lisa Levin, a professor of biological oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

Levin is one of hundreds of scientists calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until more research can be done on how it would impact deep-sea habitats.

Many of the organisms that live there, Levin said, are unknown to science.

“We don’t know how most of those organisms live and function, and what their role is in their ecosystems,” Levin said.  “And more importantly, how those ecosystems, perhaps, ultimately could affect or interact with human beings.”

Corals, sponges and single-celled organisms live on the metal nodules themselves. Destroying them could have impacts up the food chain, and potentially, on humans, Levin said.

“It sounds like something far-fetched, but marine organisms are creating all sorts of new anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic drugs, so there is concern about loss of biodiversity in that regard,” Levin said.

Sediments kicked up during the mining process could also change the underwater habitat.

This conflict — to mine or not to mine — is coming to a head now.

Related: Who will pay for ‘losses and damages’ caused by climate change? Developing countries make their case at COP26.

The intergovernmental agency called the International Seabed Authority is meeting this week in Kingston, Jamaica, to discuss a roadmap for finalizing deep-sea mining regulations by the summer of 2023.

The group was formed in 1994 under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea to regulate mining in international waters, where no nation has national authority “for the benefit of mankind as a whole.”

The authority has granted 31 exploration contracts to 22  firms, but hasn’t yet finalized rules for extraction.

This past summer, the small Pacific island nation of Nauru forced the issue.

It triggered an obscure legal provision that would allow a wholly owned subsidiary of The Metals Company, called Nauru Ocean Resources Incorporated — which the country of Nauru has a financial stake in — to start mining in two years.

That’s whether regulations are finalized by then, or whether the International Seabed Authority has determined how to distribute any proceeds from the mining “for the benefit of mankind” as its mandate requires. 

‘We have a climate crisis on our hands’

At this week’s meeting in Kingston, several countries expressed concern about the timeline.

“Jamaica is not convinced that even with the best efforts of all sides, the time proposed is adequate to develop a strong, effective, balanced, comprehensive regulatory framework,” said Alison Stone Roofe, a meeting delegate representing Jamaica, noting that the governance structures for deep-sea mining were not in place yet.

A few environmental organizations that spoke at the meeting went a step further, calling for a moratorium on mining.

“What we're seeing really, frankly, is a headlong rush to mine the deep sea. It is really quite a great concern.”

Duncan Currie, an international legal adviser, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition

“What we're seeing really, frankly, is a headlong rush to mine the deep sea,” said Duncan Currie, an international legal adviser representing the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, after speaking at the meeting. “It is really quite a great concern.”

Related: At COP26, island nations push hard for countries to meet goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius

Barron, The Metals Company CEO, sees the urgency as a good thing. The original deadline for finalizing deep-sea mining rules, which have been in the works since 2014, was last year.

That leaves plenty of time to finish the work by 2023, he said.

“We have a climate crisis on our hands,” Barron said. “We do not have time to sit around for a decade and support a moratorium.”

The International Seabed Authority has laid out a work plan to arrive at finalized mining regulations by the summer of 2023.

That’s also when The Metals Company hopes to submit its environmental impact statement to the regulator. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the International Seabed Authority as a United Nations body. Although the agency originally came out of an office in the UN, it is an independent, intergovernmental body. 

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