A handful of postage stamp nations in the South Pacific this week began a bitter battle against deep-sea mining of unfortified, fist-sized rocks rich in rare earth metals.
The stakes are potentially enormous.
Companies looking to scrape the ocean floor five to six thousand meters (17,000 to 20,000 feet) below sea level can make billions by harvesting manganese, cobalt, copper and nickel, which are currently used to build batteries for electric vehicles.
But the extraction process would disfigure what is perhaps Earth’s most pristine ecosystem, and it could take thousands of years, if not longer, for nature to repair it.
The said deep-sea jewels, so-called polymetallic nodules, grow with the help of microbes over millions of years around a core of organic matter, such as a shark tooth or a whale’s ear bone.
“They are living rocks, not just dead rocks,” said Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in Lisbon.
“I consider them miracles.”
She also sees a nascent deep-sea mining industry as a miracle, albeit for different reasons.
“High grades of four metals in a single rock mean four times less ore has to be processed to get the same amount of metal,” notes The Metals Company, which has exploration partnerships with three South Pacific nations – Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga – in the mineral-rich Clarion-Clipperton fault zone.
Nodules are also low in heavy elements, which the company says means less toxic waste compared to land-based extraction.
Commercial mining has not started anywhere in the world, but about 20 research institutes or companies have exploration contracts with the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Surangel Whipps Jr., President of Palau, launched the anti-mining campaign at the just-concluded UN Oceania Conference in Lisbon, flanked by Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
“Deep-sea mining endangers the integrity of our ocean habitat and should be stopped as far as possible,” said Whipps, calling for an indefinite moratorium.
Like-minded neighboring nation-states Samoa, Tuvalu and Solomon Islands have backed the call, along with more than 100 mostly Green MPs from three dozen nations around the world.
A similar motion put to a vote last September before the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – an umbrella organization of 1,400 research institutes, environmental NGOs and indigenous groups – passed without a hitch.
– ‘Who’s watching?’ –
“Mining, wherever it takes place, is known to have an environmental cost,” said scientist Earle.
“At least on land, we can monitor, detect and fix problems and minimize damage. Six thousand meters (20,000 feet) below the surface, who’s watching?”
But in Lisbon, explicit support from other countries for a temporary ban on seabed mining on the high seas outside national territorial waters, known as exclusive economic zones (EEZ), was rare.
Chile stepped up and demanded a 15-year hiatus to allow for more research.
The United States, along with other developed nations, took a more ambiguous stance, calling for a scientific assessment of environmental impacts but not closing the door on future mining.
“We have not taken an official position on this,” US climate commissioner John Kerry told AFP in an interview.
“But we have expressed major concerns about properly investigating the impact of deep-sea mining and we have not approved one.”
To the surprise of many in Lisbon, France’s President Emmanuel Macron appeared to advocate a halt to deep-sea mining on the seas, even though France holds mining exploration licenses from ISA, the intergovernmental organization that oversees exploitation of the seabed.
“I think we must indeed create the legal framework to stop deep-sea mining and not allow new activities that endanger these ecosystems,” Macron said at a side event.
“We need to get our scientists and explorers to get to know and explore these high seas better.”
Opponents of deep-sea mining were enthusiastic about the statement, but are waiting to see what follows.
“Will the French government make diplomatic efforts to carry out what it has announced? We’ll see,” said Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.
The clock is ticking because last year Nauru, in partnership with The Metals Company, sponsored a regulation requiring the ISA to finalize regulations for deep sea mining globally within two years.
The ISA, which has been criticized for its lack of transparency and favoritism of corporate interests, will meet later this month in Kingston, Jamaica.
Sources say they will likely seek to push through draft regulations that, if passed, could license mining operations around this time next year.
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