These three vessels, owned by The Metals Company’s strategic partner Allseas, are seen here during a pilot test of a nodule collection system and environmental monitoring program for The Metals Company. Photo courtesy of The Metals Company.
Photo courtesy of Metals
Debate over seabed mining in international waters heats up ahead of expected rules Deadline.
As all stakeholders gather in Kingston, Jamaica, to try to reach a consensus on regulation, a fierce debate is brewing between supporters who say the rules are urgently needed as demand for seabed minerals grows and opponents who argue that the rush to open the seabed in international waters can be a damaging decision that cannot be reversed.
One area of particular interest is a part of the central Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 miles off the coast of Mexico, called the Clarion Clipperton Zone. Proponents say deep-sea mining there is a less harmful way to collect metals such as nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt. This is especially true when mining occurs in areas such as rainforests, which are rich in biodiversity and are also major carbon sinks that slow climate change.
“We have to take a planetary perspective. We have to look at the planet as a whole,” said Gerard Barron, CEO of The Metals Company, which holds mining exploration permits in the area in question. Metals was founded in 2011, raised $400 million from investors, and has spent the past dozen years working on research and regulatory compliance to be able to collect metals in this deep-sea region.
“We don’t assume the impact is zero,” Barron said. “But what we are saying is that the impact is very minimal and we can manage that impact.”
Opponents of deep-sea mining argue that there is not enough information to make such a decision.
“If mining continues, the damage caused will be irreversible,” said Diva Amon, a deep-sea marine biologist who represents the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative.
Deep-sea creatures have adapted over millions of years to live in a dark, quiet place with little rainfall. Many of these creatures have unusually long lifespans, with individual corals living more than 4,000 years and sea sponges living 10,000 years, Ammon said. It is also an impressive source of biodiversity, as 70% to 90% of the many thousands of life forms discovered there have never been seen by scientists.
“It’s a thriving ecosystem,” Amon said. “Of course, many animals are small in size, but that doesn’t make them any less important.”
This is an image of a new species from a new order of Cnidaria collected at 4100 meters in the Clarion Clipperton area. The life of this creature depends on the stems of the sponge attached to the nodules. Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The deadline pulls everyone to the table
The International Seabed Authority is meeting at its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, from March 21 to April 1.
Established in 1996, the ISA has 168 member countries and issues rules that govern 54% of the world’s oceans — all oceans outside the exclusive economic zones of countries that border them. It is responsible for managing the mineral resources of the ocean floor “for the benefit of all mankind” and “has the authority to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from the harmful effects that may arise from activities related to the deep seabed. “, the organization reports on its website.
The ISA has issued permits to 22 contractors to explore for metals on the deep seabed, and 19 of these applications are to explore for polymetallic nodules in the Clarion Clipperton area.
Boston Metal Company owns three licenses, which it was able to obtain thanks to the support of the small Pacific island nations of Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati. But mining of metals from the seabed requires an exploitation license.
This National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map shows where the most nodules are in the Clarion-Clipperton area.
Photo and map courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
On June 25, 2021, the President of Nauru sent a letter to the ISA requesting that the rules and regulations of the organization be finalized so that this application for operation can be approved to begin operations in two years. That two-year deadline is coming up in a few months.
Critics of the idea of deep-sea mining have said the process is rushed.
The letter from Nauru was sent “right in the middle of the pandemic, when no face-to-face meetings were held, leading to a rule in the law of the sea that puts pressure on the ISA and its member states to finalize the rules within two years – or face the question of giving Nauru and its company a temporary license to start mining without any regulations,” Jessica Battle, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s global No Deep Seabed Mining initiative, told CNBC.
The rule was meant to be a sort of “safety valve” in case talks stalled, but talks are underway, and Battle says the rule puts too much pressure to make a decision before all the research is done.
“If Nauru gets the license, it starts an ocean mining race with unknown but certainly dire consequences for the ocean,” Battle said.
Pradeep Singh, an expert on ocean governance, environmental law and climate policy, told CNBC that “allowing mining to begin at this point would be a decision that could be challenged legally.”
Singh said the future of deep-sea mining is yet to be decided because it is the ISA’s duty to represent the views of all 168 member states. Participants can “agree to delay or postpone” the transition to mining.
“Legalities aside, such a decision would also not be legitimate,” said Singh, who is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s delegation to the ISA. “The ISA was created to act on behalf of and in the interests of humanity as a whole — not to advance the interests of industry or, rather, one private entity in this case.”
Billions of dollars on the line
The upcoming deadline comes when the demand for these metals increases.
According to Andrew Miller, chief operating officer of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt are strategic minerals in the clean energy movement because many of them are important for batteries and electrical infrastructure.
“Of course, there is an opportunity to fill the void that will arise in strategic markets for battery raw materials in the coming years,” he said.
A polymetallic nodule collected by The Metals Company during environmental base campaigns on the seabed.
Photo courtesy of The Metals Company
“The drive to decarbonize requires the development of new technologies that often depend on the supply of more scarce or strategic materials,” Miller told CNBC. “If we are to meet these demands, the supply base for these materials must increase at an unprecedented rate. This is what underpins the drive to diversify the supply of land-based minerals, as well as exploring alternatives such as deep-sea mining.”
Berron estimates that The Metals Company’s single NORI-D project has adjusted lifetime earnings of $85 billion after paying about $8.5 billion to its sponsoring nations. And this single project is only about 22% of the total resources the company can claim.
Metals is not alone in its interest in the region of international waters.
On March 16, Norway’s Loke Marine Minerals announced the acquisition of two deepwater mineral licenses located in the Clarion Clipperton area, formerly owned by Lockheed MartinUK Seabed Resources.
For Barron, the fact that Lockheed is selling its stake in the space is a positive sign for the industry.
“Lockheed has been a pure passenger in this industry,” Barron told CNBC. “They were there in the 1970s, but they didn’t help the industry in any way. They are big names, but they don’t do anything. They are defense contractors. Their business is to make bombs and warplanes. The fact that we have an operating company from Norway that is owned by some of Norway’s public entities, I think that’s a big positive for the industry and we’re excited about that.”
Finding Consensus for the Wild West
Opponents of deep-sea mining want to hit the brakes. Major companies, including BMW, GooglePatagonia, Samsung, Volkswagen and Volvo have publicly called for a moratorium on the practice.
A pilot nodule collection vehicle developed by Allseas for use by The Metals Company. Photo courtesy of The Metals Company.
Photo courtesy of The Metals Company
WWF and Greenpeace worked together to coordinate an appeal to get businesses to sign the moratorium.
“Our aim is to remove the major consumers from the market so that even as the industry overcomes political hurdles, there is less demand for metals mined from the seabed,” said Arlo Hemphill, global corporate head of Greenpeace Stop Deep Sea. Mining company. “Companies like Volkswagen and Google have significant influence in the countries in which they operate, so their support for a political moratorium on deep-sea mining also counts.”
On the other hand, the Metals Company published life cycle assessment results on Tuesday that showed that the environmental impact of the metals produced by the NORI-D project would be less harmful than land mining for almost every category of battery components.
But Ammon worries that the thesis being measured is flawed in the first place, and that deep-sea mining will simply supplement rather than replace land-based mining.
“What’s likely to happen is that when deep-sea mining starts, both will happen, and one won’t cancel out the other,” she said.
She also said that further innovation in battery technology could provide an alternative to current technologies that rely so heavily on these minerals, so there should be no rush to make a decision.
The 40-centimeter-long sea cucumber seen here is about to be collected as part of an expedition in the Clarion Clipperton area by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This sea cucumber is 92 feet long, has seven lips and many spiny appendages, and was found at an altitude of 3,500 meters.
Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Ultimately, it’s about collective decision-making,” Amon said. “We’re talking about areas outside national jurisdiction or international waters where mineral resources belong to everyone on the planet.”
But Barron says mining will happen regardless, as demand for these metals grows. So it is better to decide than to wait.
“The problem is, if we don’t agree on this, it’s just going to happen without rules,” Barron said. “And it’s going to be really bad. Imagine there’s no reporting. You can just not show the care and attention that companies like us do. It could be the Wild West, and it’s going to be a disaster for our oceans and our planet.”
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