When the island nation of Nauru announced that it would sponsor a deep-sea mining effort for battery materials, the country sent scientists and world leaders into a panic. It meant that companies might soon start harvesting minerals like nickel, cobalt, and copper from the ocean’s deepest depths for the first time. Scientists raised the alarm: what havoc would that do to ecosystems that humans are barely starting to understand?
The move set a deadline for the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to decide on regulations for deep-sea mining by July 2023. That deadline to craft regulation is nearly here — and the ISA, an international organization established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is expected to miss it. Once the deadline has passed, companies eager to reap previously out-of-reach resources will be able to formally apply for permits to mine the deep sea.
A growing group of governments and conservationists are scrambling to keep the floodgates closed. They want the ISA to reject any proposed mining efforts at least until it establishes a mining code, or set of regulations, for international seabed mining. And many researchers say we know too little about the ocean’s abyss to even craft regulations meant to minimize any damage done by mining.
“I don’t think we have reached a point in time that deep seabed mining can be done in a responsible way.”
“I don’t think we have reached a point in time that deep seabed mining can be done in a responsible way,” says Pradeep Singh, an expert on ocean governance and a fellow at the Research Institute for Sustainability at Helmholtz Centre Potsdam. “We’ll just end up with the situation where we see more of the same old problems [with mining] on land, but new ones at sea.”
Companies that want to mine the deep sea make the case that they’d be doing the world a favor. Electric vehicles, solar panels, and so many of our everyday gadgets need rechargeable batteries. But land-based supply chains for key battery materials like cobalt are riddled with allegations of human rights abuses. So why not avoid that mess by heading out to sea? After all, swathes of the seafloor are covered in polymetallic nodules rich in nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese. And then there are the underwater hydrothermal vents, spewing nickel, copper, and other rare elements.
But Singh says a race to the sea would only exacerbate problems on land by driving competition to produce cheap minerals. And research is mounting on what kinds of consequences deep-sea mining could have on sensitive marine life. The noise alone could be louder than a rock concert, according to a study published last year. Mining could also kick up plumes of sediment that could smother nearby ecosystems. The damage would be irreversible, says another report published in March.
The deep-sea mining code the ISA is charged with creating “will ensure the further protection of the marine environment while setting out the requirements for the responsible access and use of the resources critical to the fight against climate change,” the mining company sponsored by Nauru, The Metals Company, told The Verge in March.
The Metals Company and others like it need a country sponsor to apply for a permit to mine. And those applications could soon start rolling into the ISA. But what happens next depends a lot on an ISA meeting scheduled to start on July 10th, after its deadline to create the code has technically passed. That’s why it’s a pretty sure bet that there won’t be rules in place before the arbitrary deadline triggered by Nauru in 2021.
After the covid-19 pandemic delayed negotiations, the ISA is expected to talk about what to do with those applications during the July meeting. And so far, it looks like it could still be a long road ahead before any actual regulations are in place. “One of the things that we haven’t really debated and agreed on at the ISA is what levels of harm are deemed acceptable and what levels of harm are not acceptable. We haven’t even come close to agreeing on this just yet. So it’s going take a long time,” Singh says.
More than a dozen nations have called for some kind of moratorium or pause on deep-sea mining, with Switzerland joining their ranks this week. “If you’re still going to be faced with this lack of scientific information and uncertainty, then that’s exactly why countries such as Switzerland say there should be a moratorium, to have breathing space so that there’s not this endless pressure to develop regulations, and instead spend their time doing scientific research and trying to understand what is down there,” says Duncan Currie, political and legal advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition that has also pushed for a moratorium.
A draft resolution is also on the table in July, calling on the Seabed Authority not to approve any work plans for proposed mining projects until all the regulations are in place. It could amount to a de facto moratorium on deep-sea mining if it passes. But that would require approval by two-thirds of ISA Assembly members that show up, and the Assembly includes delegates from 167 different countries and the European Union. So there’s plenty of political wrangling still ahead.