Deep-Sea Mining: Exploiting our Oceans in the Name of Clean Energy

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The latest, and potentially most destructive existential threat to our oceans is deep-sea mining.

Deep-sea mining (DSM) is the process of extracting commercially valuable mineral deposits from the ocean floor. The idea has been tossed around for the past 60 years but, ironically, the transition to clean energy and concerns about climate change have generated increased interest in acquiring mineral deposits found on the seabed: copper, nickel, aluminum, manganese, zinc, cobalt and lithium.

There is an accelerating demand for these metals to produce “green” technologies like wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and smartphones. Lithium, the lightest metal in the world, is used to make the batteries for electric vehicles.

Thus, in a paradoxical twist, the race to address global warming could result in the catastrophic plundering of the ocean. A case of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” with devastating, irreversible consequences.

Proponents of DSM are eyeing an area in the central Pacific Ocean called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), an area of more than 1.7 million square miles located just 500 miles south of Hawaiʻi Island.

The seabed there is 2.5 to 3.5 miles deep and its marine life exists in absolute darkness. A team of British researchers recently published a study identifying at least 5,500 species living in the CCZ – 90% of which were previously unknown to science, have no names, and likely exist no where else on Earth.

In the CCZ, scientists also discovered the presence of “polymetallic nodules,” potato-sized rocks comprised of layers of metallic ore that build up around marine debris. The nodules contain astonishingly high levels of precious minerals. Miners would harvest these nodules from the CCZ – and in the process destroy one of the most pristine, untouched habitats on the planet.

Our Moananuiākea is an interconnected ecosystem. It is impossible to conduct deep-sea mining in one area of the ocean without impacting the entire system. The egregious threat to the biodiversity and health of the ocean cannot be overstated.

DSM involves scraping off the top layer of the ocean floor to extract the coveted nodules, killing the marine animals and species that live there. The nodules and sediment are pumped to a surface ship using a giant tube, and then the excess water and sediments are pumped back into the ocean through another tube.

The resulting slurry and sediment plumes from the mining equipment, and release of post-extraction wastewater containing metals and toxins, could spread 900 miles in multiple directions, affecting all exposed marine life and, ultimately, the fisheries that feed us.

In the 1980s, a simulation of seabed mining was conducted off the coast of Peru. When the site was revisited in 2020 it showed no evidence of recovery – strongly suggesting that the damage wrought to the ocean by deep-sea mining will be permanent.

Beyond the obvious ecological consequences, DSM is in direct conflict with Indigenous world views and the spiritual connection that Indigenous Pacific people have with the ocean.

“The deep sea is closely tied to our cultural heritage, inheritance, and genealogical connections that acknowledge this realm as our source of all creation that is intimately described and chanted in the Kumulipo,” said Sol Kahoʻohalahala of Lānaʻi who has spoken out against deep-sea mining on the international level.

“In our mind, there is no division of the seas. The animals of the sea don’t see a boundary any more than we see a boundary. We have a great ocean which we are related to and come from and care for and is our home.

“In those conversations [about] mining, there is no consideration that we come from this place. It’s about minerals, it’s about resources, it’s about extraction, with no regard for culture.”

Deep-sea mining was fast-tracked in June 2021 when the Pacific Island nation of Nauru notified the International Seabed Authority (ISA) that it intended to “sponsor” The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian firm, to begin mineral extraction from the deep ocean. This triggered a legal clause forcing ISA to adopt rules for deep-sea mining 24 months from the date of notification (i.e., by June 2023). The ISA is the United Nations’ body tasked with regulating international waters.

In response, at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) annual congress in September 2021, 81 governments and government agencies, along with 577 non-governmental and civil organizations voted for a moratorium on deep-sea mining and the reform of the ISA which has been scrutinized for its lack of transparency and apparent pro-mining bias.

ISA has already granted 16 licenses to explore for minerals in the CCZ. With billions of dollars to be made by corporations and governments eager to cash in, should ISA open this Pandora’s Box, closing it will be nearly impossible.

In December 2021, a coalition of conservationists, Indigenous rights advocates, marine scientists and political leaders sent a letter to the Biden administration expressing serious concerns about the potential threats of deep-sea mining to Hawaiʻi, Guåhan (Guam) and other Pacific Island communities and calling on the U.S. to support a moratorium by the ISA on deep-sea mining.

Last summer, Fiji, Palau and Samoa formed an alliance to become the first countries to oppose DSM in international waters. Since then, another 20 countries have joined them. In March, Indigenous leaders from 34 countries and 56 groups, led by Kahoʻohalahala and Tahitian activist Hinano Murphy, submitted a petition to the ISA calling for a DSM ban.

To date, more than 750 marine scientists and policy experts from 44 countries, as well as 37 financial institutions and the fishing industry, have called for a DSM moratorium.

In mid-July, U.S. Congressman Ed Case of Hawaiʻi introduced two measures calling for moratoria on DSM. The American Seabed Protection Act would place a moratorium on DSM activities in American waters or by American companies on the high seas.

The International Seabed Protection Act will require the U.S. to oppose international and other national seabed mining efforts until the president certifies that the ISA has adopted a suitable regulatory framework to guarantee protection for the ocean’s unique ecosystems and the communities that rely on them.

“As many as 10 million marine species may inhabit the deep sea, a massive and interrelated biodiversity seen nearly nowhere else on the planet,” Case said.

“The deep ocean is one of our planet’s largest and most important stores of carbon and could play a critical role in the fight against climate change. Yet…our entire marine ecosystem is now imperiled by the imminent commencement of large-scale commercial seabed mining operations.”

On July 28, in a temporary win for ocean activists, it was announced that ISA’s deep-sea mining negotiations in Kingston, Jamaica, concluded without mining companies receiving a green light to begin mining operations. This means that a majority of countries have not yielded to pressure from the mining industry.

Despite the win, an ongoing concern is that pro-mining nations are attempting to silence the growing resistance to deep-sea mining. China is opposing a proposal from Latin American, Pacific and European governments to allow space for debate. And the ISA secretariat, frequently accused of being too close to the mining industry, restricted journalists and clamped down on peaceful protests during the meeting.

“The deep-sea mining industry seriously underestimated the importance of science and equity over a merely speculative and profit-driven venture. Cracks are appearing in what to date has been a fortress for industry interests as a result of increasing public awareness and mobilization,” said Greenpeace International Oceans campaigner Louisa Casson.

“The world is fighting back against deep-sea mining – there’s a big fight ahead, but the fight is on.”

“The deep sea is our refugia and remains as our sacred place where creation still takes place to this day,” Kahoʻohalahala said. “We bear the responsibility to care for these sacred places and to ensure their continuation in perpetuity.

“It’s important for us to participate in these discussions. There is a culture of the deep-sea. I want to be a voice of our ancestors. I want to be the one that says we come from this place, this is our home, and you are now intruding upon it.”


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