The United States moves towards exploration and exploitation of critical mineral resources in the deep ocean.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

Featured Image: US Exclusive Economic Zone (note: Navassa territorial claim is disputed by Haiti).

Since the signing of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the creation of the International Seabed Authority, the United States of America has been a shadow partner in the growing deep-sea mining industry. Though the United States provides scientific and technical expertise, and is a de facto participant through American-owned subsidiaries incorporated in sponsoring states, the nation with the world’s second largest exclusive economic zone never ratified the core treaties and thus has limited influence at negotiations.

While the United States made significant contributions to the early development of the industry, it has been largely inactive since the mid 1980’s, focusing instead on its offshore fossil fuel resources and leaving critical minerals in the deep ocean largely untouched. Within the US EEZ surrounding the country’s Pacific territories, in particular, a push for large, remote marine protected areas in the form of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, deep-sea mining has been effectively prohibited.  

The United States continues to assert claims over two large lease blocks in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, citing existing precedent from prior to the ISA’s creation, though no recent attempts have been made to exploit those blocks. The ISA, for its part, continues to hold those lease blocks in reserve, should the US eventually join all but a few nations who have ratified the Law of the Sea.

That general non-involvement at the policy level may soon change. In a recent Executive Order on Addressing the Threat to the Domestic Supply Chain from Reliance on Critical Minerals from Foreign Adversaries by the now-outgoing President of the United States tasked the Department of the Interior with assessing any potential national security threat posed by the nation’s reliance on critical mineral imports, securing a domestic supply chain, and funding projects to increase critical mineral production within the United States. 

“By signing the Executive Order, President Trump declared a National Emergency and called for action to expand the domestic mining industry, support mining jobs, alleviate unnecessary permitting delays, and reduce our Nation’s dependence on China for critical minerals.” says Beverly Winston of BOEM’s Office of Public Affairs. “In the few weeks since the order was signed, leadership at relevant Department of the Interior agencies have been actively engaged in identifying specific actions that can be taken to implement the order.” 

Executive Orders are not always the best indicator of changing government priorities. A more definitive approach to identifying significant policy shifts is to examine contracting opportunities through the US General Services Administration. Soon after the President’s Executive Order, a solicitation for Geophysical, Geological, and Environmental Data Collection and Analysis supporting Outer Continental Shelf Marine Minerals Stewardship contract bids of indefinite duration and indefinite quantity was posted, providing funding for a four year marine critical minerals exploration campaign through the US Department of the Interior. 

This call is a much more substantial indicator that the US is planning a more aggressive push into deep-sea minerals in the coming years. In a possibly unrelated move, the US Geological Survey is recruiting a postdoctoral fellow in Geology, geochemistry and global context of deep-ocean marine minerals.

With respect to BOEM’s four-year horizon, Winston adds that “BOEM is actively collaborating with partner agencies, such as USGS and NOAA, to better understand our marine mineral resources and associated biological communities. BOEM is a member of the newly created National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization Council, and also co-chairs the Interagency Working Group on Ocean Exploration and Characterization. Both of these bodies will work to identify priority areas for exploration and characterization, and to coordinate personnel and funds to study the priority areas.”

While these moves point to increased deep-sea mining exploration within the US EEZ, they don’t provide nearly as much clarity on the United States’ future plans for the Area. In recent ISA council meetings, the US delegation has intervened to assert their existing claims in the CCZ, however no recent actions suggest an intent to attempt to exploit those claims. 

Notably, the recent Executive Order is directed at the Department of the Interior, while it is the Department of Commerce, within which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is housed, who would initiate any exploration or exploitation in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. 

“Currently under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA),” concludes Winston, “BOEM’s leasing authority is limited to the Outer Continental Shelf offshore the coastal states. NOAA is the implementing agency for the Deep Sea Hard Minerals Resource Act, which establishes an interim domestic licensing and permitting regime for deep seabed hard mineral exploration and mining beyond the EEZ pending adoption of an acceptable international regime.”

Though the election of President-Elect Joe Biden will likely have substantial influence on future priorities for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, it is too early to know, according to BOEM representatives, how a new administration will impact critical minerals policy. With a core policy focus on climate change, it is almost certain that securing access to the critical minerals necessary to building next-generation energy infrastructure will remain a priority for the next administration. 

Dead dolphins wash up in Mauritius, mining for cobalt on the bottom of the sea, and Norwegian whaling – What’s up with the Ocean this week?

The disaster continues in Mauritius. With the cleanup and salvage well underway, Mauritius has begun assessing the broader impacts of the disastrous bulk carrier wreck. Fishermen have reported seeing 30 to 30 dead dolphins floating in a lagoon near the wreckage including mothers and calfs. Dead whales, as well as sick and injured whales, are also being recovered close to the site of the spill.

Deep-sea mining cracks the crust. The world’s first experimental deep-sea mining operation for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts has successfully recovered ore from the seafloor. For a deeper looking into the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to the DSM Observer.

The mining machine on the seabed. Photo courtesy JOGMEC.

Whaling in Norway. Commercial whaling in Norway has reach a four-year-high. As of last week, Norwegian whaling vessels had killed 481 minke whales this season. The Norwegian whaling season is not over.

Upwelling.

I don’t have a huge soapbox to stand on this week, but there have been several good balanced articles about deep-sea mining that are worth a read, including this from Scientific American – Deep-Sea Mining: How to Balance Need for Metals with Ecological Impacts – and this by the Secretary-General of the International Seabed Authority, which oversees seabed mineral rights in areas beyond national jurisdiction – How to Mine the Oceans Sustainably.

Hurricanes, Sharks, Mining the Deep Sea, and the Great American Outdoors – What’s up with the Ocean this week?

August 5, 2020

Holy Mola we are back! Bass my flounder for I have finned. It has been Half A Year since I last posted anything on Southern Fried Science. Granted, that year is 2020, so I think we can all give each other all the slack we need. I have missed this place, my weekly ocean news round ups, and my less frequent deep dives into ocean science, conservation, and exploration. So let’s get back to it: What the heck is up with the ocean this week?

Hurricane Isaias. Hurricane Isaias ripped across the eastern seaboard, striking the Bahamas as a category 1 hurricane before slowing as it approached the United States. It briefly ramped back up to a category 1 storm as it strafed the North Carolina coastline. Isaias spun off hundreds of tornadoes as far north as Delaware as it crawled towards Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. It is the ninth named storm of 2020, the earliest ninth storm to form on record, and the second consecutive hurricane of the season. 2020 is projected to be an exceptionally intense year for Atlantic hurricanes, because of course it is.  

An osprey braces itself against the wind as Isaias passes over the Maryland Eastern Shore. Photo by Andrew Thaler.

Woman killed by Great White Shark. A woman was killed by a Great White Shark last week in Maine’s first recorded lethal shark encounter. Though Great Whites are uncommon, they are not unheard of in northern waters and the recovery of shark populations in the north Atlantic is in general regarded as a success story. With rebounding populations, interactions between humans and wildlife will increase, although such tragic outcomes are still rare. In a strange twist, the victim in this case was an acquaintance of our own resident shark specialist

We still don’t know how to assess the impacts of deep-sea mining. In Deep-Sea Misconceptions Cause Underestimation of Seabed-Mining Impacts, Smith and friends outline the numerous potential misconceptions that may dramatically affect our estimations of the impact of deep-sea mining. These misconceptions include the scale of the operation, the rate of recovery, and the compounding impacts of other human-induced insults to the seafloor. 

Upwelling (the part where Andrew gets on his soapbox)

Yesterday, the President signed the Great American Outdoors Act, a largely bipartisan effort to dramatically increase funding for land conservation across the US; an act that was necessary following decades of Republican leadership gutting funding for the National Parks Service and deferring essential repairs. The $9 billion in funding for deferred maintenance will go towards offsetting over $12 billion in critical repairs that have accumulated since the 1980s, the last decade in which the Park Service budget was significantly increased. It also guarantees almost $1 billion per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is predominantly funded though royalty payments from offshore oil and gas. 

It’s a great law made necessary by decades of leadership failure. 

Saltiness aside, it comes at a time when access to the outdoors could not be more essential. With the country in the midst of an historic pandemic and travel significantly curtailed, access to green space is at a premium. And, unsurprisingly, nature deficit disproportionately affects historically marginalized communities, particularly those within urban areas where vast green spaces come in the form of literal walled gardens. 

Even with the Great American Outdoors Act, this administration has done more to destroy the environment than any modern presidency, and we can only hope that this will help lay the groundwork for the next president’s Green (and Blue) Awakening.

Ballard’s hunt for Earhart’s wrecked plane, sink or swim for deep-sea mining, prints of whales, and more! Monday Morning Salvage, August 19, 2019.

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)

BEN (Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator) was made for the University of New Hampshire by marine autonomy tech company ASV Global(Credit: University of New Hampshire)
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A brutal slog through some of the worst ocean and climate news of the summer. Also, fish cannons. [Tuesday] Morning Salvage: August 13, 2019.

Foghorn (A Call to Action!)

  • Trump Administration Guts Endangered Species Act, setting back conservation efforts by decades, dooming thousands of charismatic species to extinction, and sealing his legacy as the racist president that is unambiguously worse than Nixon. Look, at this point, if you aren’t calling your representatives on the regular to demand impeachment, I don’t know what to tell you.

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)

Image: Pierre Markuse (Flickr)
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A global assessment of biodiversity and research effort at active Seafloor Massive Sulphides: Transcript from my talk at the International Seabed Authority.

[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at a side event during Part II of the 25th Session of the International Seabed Authority in July, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]

I want to change gears this afternoon and talk about a very different kind of mining. For the last two years, Diva and I have been engaged in a data mining project to discover what we can learn and what we still need to learn about biodiversity at hydrothermal vents from the 40-year history of ocean exploration in the deep sea.

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