Laura Trethewey is the author of The Deepest Map: The High-Stakes Race to Chart the World’s Oceans coming this July.
On July 9, a United Nations body is set to start accepting applications for deep-sea commercial mining. In the most likely scenario, big machines that resemble army tanks plow across the deep plains, crushing all the life beneath them as they extract manganese nodules, which contain nickel, cobalt, copper and rare earth elements, from the seabed.
Mining proponents cite a desire to save the planet: the rise of carbon-saving technology and predicted demand for metals to make electric-vehicle batteries and wind turbines.
But, ironically, numerous countries, corporations and over 700 scientists are calling to ban or pause industry development until more is known about the effects on the deep-sea habitat. This past May, researchers at the Natural History Museum in London published a study cataloguing more than 5,000 animals in one proposed mining site with an astonishing 90 per cent new to science.
Canada has so far issued vague statements about ocean protection, despite our country’s incredible influence over whether this controversial industry becomes a reality. We have a curious history of spawning deep-sea mining companies. Vancouver’s The Metals Company is leading the charge today, just as the now-bankrupt Nautilus Minerals – also out of Vancouver – tried to do a decade ago. Canada needs to speak up more forcefully to stop this new push in its track.
This issue began in July, 2021, when the president of Nauru, The Metals Co.’s governmental partner, sent a letter to the International Seabed Authority, the UN-backed regulator of deep-sea mining in Jamaica. That triggered an obscure mechanism within the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
This clause, sometimes known as the “nuclear option” amongst government delegates, allows a nation to fast-track and finalize the world’s deep-sea mining regulations within two years.
This brings us to July 9, when the two-year deadline will expire and deep-sea miners could get the go-ahead to apply to mine with the regulations that are in place – or rather, not in place, as is the case now. Countries have still not hammered out regulations over the past two years.
Many major corporations have already pledged to exclude deep-sea minerals from their supply chains, including manufacturers such as BMW, Volkswagen, Google and Samsung. Past deep-sea mining industry backers, such as Lockheed Martin and Maersk, have dropped out.
“Nobody wants to go seabed mining, at least for a few years, other than The Metals Company,” Duncan Currie, a lawyer at the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, told the Financial Times.
But now, this small, little-heard-of Vancouver company, with stock trading around US$1, has opened a Pandora’s Box.
This wide-open playing field threatens to accelerate long-simmering plans other miners have for the deep sea. That risks reigniting interest all the way up the supply chain to electronics and auto manufacturers. All this for a realm that has few safeguards. “It’s created enormous tension, diplomatic anxiety, frustration and activity, all for one company,” Mr. Currie said.
The proposed sites for deep-sea mining are incredibly vast. The Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean, where much of the mining would take place, is roughly the size of Europe. According to University of Hawaii oceanographer Jeff Drazen, one mining contractor will have to tear up between 300 to 600 square kilometres of sea floor every year to turn a profit. “Mining these resources could be one of the largest anthropogenic alterations to the surface of our planet that we engage in,” Mr. Drazen has said in interviews.
That’s just the physical damage to the sea floor itself. There’s no telling how far toxic plumes of underwater dust may travel, kicked up by machinery scraping the sea floor and by tailings pumped back down into the sea. Some scientists reckon the plumes could travel hundreds of kilometres. (Deep sea miners say as little as 10 kilometres).
The dispersed sediment would drag down delicate marine animals and clog filter-feeding sponges, jellyfish and clams. It would absorb the light that bioluminescent animals use to feed and communicate. Toxins might also filter in to the human food chain, via the herds of migrating tuna within the CCZ, where half the world’s tuna stocks originate.
Then there’s the wider impact on climate. The deep sea is the world’s last largest intact wilderness refuge, a buffer against a warming climate and a treasure trove for undiscovered biomedical resources. There are practical reasons to protect a place that many of us will never see. The biotech industry is experimenting with a raft of new marine-derived products, many of them taken from sponges and coral, for addressing global challenges, such as antibiotic resistance and methane emissions.
Since the Industrial Age, the global ocean has sequestered the majority of the heat from climate change. (NASA recently reported that 2022 was the ocean’s warmest year on record.) The ocean is already struggling to handle the heat, along with other human-caused pressures such as acidification, deoxygenation, pollution and overfishing. Why mine the world’s last marine refuge when it is already straining to provide the ecosystem services that everyone relies on?
Another subset of the pro-mining argument is that deep-sea mining would help end destructive mining practices in developing countries. Much of the world’s cobalt is extracted in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the industry is poorly regulated and child labourers work in horrendous conditions. Nickel mines in the Philippines, Indonesia and New Caledonia tear out tropical rainforests and pollute waterways.
However, technology and metal demand are evolving quickly and these metals might not be as critical as miners say. The latest trend amongst electric-vehicle manufacturers, for instance, is to move away from cobalt and nickel toward lithium-iron phosphate and other battery alternatives. Even if such metals will continue to be relevant, deep-sea mining offers no guarantee that terrestrial mining would cease if a new offshore industry began. Instead the two would likely continue in parallel, fouling both land and sea, while driving down mining profits for impoverished countries.
Most deep-sea scientists agree that sea floor habitats, which take millions of years to form, are unlikely to recover from mining. Countries around the world support either a pause or a ban on developing mining regulations.
This past February, Canada issued a temporary ban on deep-sea mining in domestic waters, but stayed mum on international waters, where the real pressure is building. As the first company to mine may be Canadian, and Canada holds a key decision-making role on the Council of the International Seabed Authority, that silence is significant, even dangerous.
Canada is an ocean country with deep economic and cultural ties to the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific. There are no borders at sea, which means that the proposed mining sites in the Pacific are in our backyard with huge unknown consequences for people and the planet. Canada needs to go further, trust the science and pause deep-sea mining in international waters before it’s too late.