Earlier this month, Mining.com published an article on the next steps in the development of deep-sea mining which featured a pretty surprising statement from the CEO of The Metals Company:
“People think we are debating if this (deep sea mining) should happen or not, and that’s gone. It’s happening.”Gerard Barron/Mining.com
One of the interesting things about deep-sea mining is that most of the people involved in the industry are environmentally motivated: the folks leading the charge for deep-sea mining and the folks urging caution have much more shared environmental values than coverage of the deep-sea mining negotiations would suggest. Which is why this quote caught me off-guard. Though an unapologetic proponent for the potential of deep-sea mining, Barron is usually much more diplomatic in his media statements. To declare that the debate is done seems reckless.
The deep-sea mining debate is most certainly not “gone”. It is, at the moment, more fiercely discussed that at any previous point in the industry’s 50 year history. While mining contractors have overcome significant political and technological hurdles to reach a point where they are on the cusp of the first commercial trials, the call for a moratorium on the development of the industry has more support, both within the International Seabed Authority, and without, than ever before. The invocation of the 2-year-trigger in 2021 jumpstarted the debate and forced the ISA to meet a deadline for finalization of the Mining Code, the legal structure that will determine when and how mining will proceed in the high seas.
If and when the International Seabed Authority issues regulations for deep-sea mining, the debate still won’t be gone. Deep-sea mining may very well become dominant in the production of metals essential to the renewable energy revolution, but that future is neither imminent nor inevitable. From the first ounce of commercially viable ore extracted from the seafloor, there will be decades of development before the industry can produce metals at a scale that meet even a fraction of global demand.
In the past, I have argued that, due to the slow ramp up of the industry, Deep-sea Mining has Time. Because there’s a long lead from that first commercial test mine to full-scale production, we have the opportunity to invest more time ahead of production to ensure that we get it right. Since mining sites won’t recover over human time scales (A 3-decade-long disturbance study on the deep abyssal plain), we have an obligation to make sure we’re moving forward with the best available science. And there’s an X factor: evolving battery technology may ultimately determine whether of not deep-sea mining is commercially viable.
It is likely in the next few years that The Metals Company will receive permission to conduct the first commercial mining operation in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. That first mine will reveal far more about how deep-sea mining impacts the ocean environment than any of the previous studies. And that data will inform the deep-sea mining debate, which will certainly not be “gone”. During the coming decades, scientists, environmentalist, and industry advocates will continue to debate and discuss the merits of the growing industry. New data will better reveal whether or not the promises of the initial environmental assessments hold up in the real world. The mining code itself will be up for review and amendments.
Other companies are emerging with novel nodule extraction tools which may offer a lighter footprint on the seafloor while long term players are bowing out after half-a-century of investment. The reality is that the urgency of this current moment in the history of deep-sea mining is driven by the need for short-term profit, and in rushing the process, may have doomed future development on the seafloor.
I do genuinely believe that companies like The Metals Company and GSR have made a reasonable case that mining polymetallic nodules from the abyssal plain can be conducted in a way that minimizes harm to the marine environment. I also don’t think the contractors and conservation stakeholders are all that far off from finding a reasonable compromise that allows for nodule mining while respecting the marine environment (I continue to argue that it is the payment regime which will hold up deep-sea mining long after the environmental regulations are complete).
Despite that, I still signed on the the call for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, because nodule mining is not the entirety of the debate this summer in Kingston. The Mining Code under negotiation is not The Mining Code for the Exploitation of Polymetallic Nodules. It’s the Mining Code for all deep-sea ores, including hydrothermal vents and metal-rich seamounts.
After 15 years working in deep-sea ecology, specifically on the impacts of deep-sea mining on hydrothermal vents, during which I’ve worked directly with Nautilus Minerals, I don’t believe that there is a case to be made that mining an active hydrothermal vent can be environmentally justified: the ecosystems are too rare, their ecology too different from the rest of the ocean, and the metal value inadequate to justify its extraction. I don’t see a path forward with seamounts, but only because there is too little data on the impact of seamount top removal.
In one of my final articles for the DSM Observer, I looked at the question of trade-offs and balance when building a greener future: The Price We’re Willing to Pay: trade-offs and balance in the deep-sea mining industry. The short answer is that it’s far more complex than just ‘deep-sea mining is better than cobalt mining in the DRC or nickel mining in Indonesia’. If cobalt and nickel are truly the metals necessary for the renewable energy revolution, then without the best possible regulations, we’ll ultimately see maximum extraction, regardless of source.
We have a rare and precious opportunity to build the best possible version of an industry. Rushing through hasty regulations based on the economic precarity of a high-risk start up is a gambit that may open the floodgates to more than just nodule mining. And we simply are not ready.
Featured image: the author address a lunchtime delegation at the International Seabed Authority.
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