Deep-seabed mining in international waters: Deadline pushes rulemaking

Why there are still conflict minerals in our electronics

These three vessels, owned by The Metals Company’s strategic partner Allseas, are seen here performing a pilot nodule collection system trial and environmental monitoring program for The Metals Company. Photo courtesy The Metals Company.

Photo courtesy The Metals company

The debate over collecting minerals from the bottom of the deep sea in international waters has gained new urgency ahead of a pending rulemaking deadline.

As all manner of stakeholders gather in Kingston, Jamaica, to try to reach a consensus over regulation, a fierce debate is growing between supporters who say we need the rules urgently as demand for the minerals at the bottom of the deep sea grows, while opponents argue the rush to open the seafloor in international waters could be a damaging decision that’s impossible to reverse.

One area of particular focus is a part of the central Pacific, about 1,000 miles from the west coast of Mexico, called the Clarion Clipperton Zone. Proponents say that deep-sea mining there is a less damaging way to gather metals like nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt. That’s especially true when the mining happens in areas like rainforests, which are rich in biodiversity and also serve as 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, the CEO of The Metals Company, which has permits to explore mining in the area under consideration. The Metals Company was founded in 2011, has raised $400 million from investors to conduct research as regulations are established surrounding the collection of these metals from this region in the deep sea.

“We don’t suggest that there’s zero impact,” Barron said. “But what we do say is that there’s very minimal impact, and we can manage those impacts.”

But opponents of deep-sea mining say there is not enough information to make that kind of decision.

“If mining does move forward, the damage caused will be irreversible,” said Diva Amon, a deep-sea marine biologist who is representing the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative.

Deep-sea creatures have adapted over millions of years to living in a dark, quiet place with little sediment. Many of these creatures have unusually long lifespans. For instance, there are individual corals that have been living for more than 4,000 years and sea sponges that live for 10,000 years, Amon said. It’s also an impressive source of biodiversity, as scientists had never seen 70% to 90% of the many thousands of lifeforms there.

“This is a thriving ecosystem,” Amon said. “Sure, many of the animals are small in size, but that doesn’t make them any less important.”

This image is of a new species from a new order of Cnidaria collected at 4,100 meters in the Clarion Clipperton Zone. This creature depends on sponge stalks attached to nodules to live. Photo courtesy the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The deadline pulling everyone to the table

From March 21 to April 1, the International Seabed Authority is meeting at its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica.

Formed in 1996, the ISA has 168 countries as members and issues rules that govern 54% of the world’s oceans — all the oceans outside of the Exclusive Economic Zones of the countries that border them. It’s charged with managing mineral resources in the floor of the ocean “for the benefit of humankind as a whole,” and “has the mandate to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects that may arise from deep-seabed-related activities,” the organization says on its website.

The ISA has granted approvals for 22 contractors to explore metals in the deep seabed, and 19 of these exploration applications are for polymetallic nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone.

The Metals Company holds three of the licenses, which it was able to obtain by being sponsored by the tiny Pacific island nations of Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati. But actually taking the metals from the seabed requires an exploitation license.

This map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows where the nodules are most abundant in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.

Photo and map courtesy the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On June 25, 2021, the president of Nauru submitted a letter to the ISA requesting that the organization have the rules and regulations finalized so that this exploitation application could be approved to begin work in two years. That two-year deadline is a matter of months away.

Critics of the idea of deep-sea mining have said the process is being rushed.

The letter from Nauru was submitted “right in the middle of the pandemic when no meetings were held face to face, [and] triggered a rule in the Law of the Sea that puts pressure on the ISA and its member states to finalize regulations within two years — or consider giving Nauru and its company a provisional license to begin mining with no regulations in place,” Jessica Battle, the lead for 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 negotiations got stuck, but the negotiations are happening and Battle says that rule has placed too much pressure to reach a decision before all the research is done.

“Should Nauru be given a license, then the race is on to mine the ocean, 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 activities to commence at this point in time would be a decision that could be legally challenged.”

Singh said the future of deep-sea mining is still undecided because it is the ISA’s duty to represent all of the 168 member states’ viewpoints. The members can “agree to delay or postpone” the move to mining, he said.

“Putting legality aside, such a decision would also lack legitimacy,” said Singh, who is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s delegation to the ISA. “The ISA was established to act on behalf of humankind as a whole and for the best interest of humankind — and not to promote the interest of industry or rather one private actor in this case.”

Billions of dollars on the line

The looming deadline comes as demand for these metals increases.

Nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt are strategic minerals in the push toward clean energy, as many of them are essential in batteries and electrical infrastructure, according to Andrew Miller, chief operating officer of the metals intelligence company Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

“There is of course an opportunity for this to fill some of the void facing strategic battery raw material markets over the years to come,” he said.

A a polymetallic nodule collected during environmental baseline campaigns off the floor of the deep sea by The Metals Company.

Photo courtesy The Metals Company

“The drive towards decarbonization requires development of new technologies, which often depend on supply of more scarce or strategic materials,” Miller told CNBC. “If we are to meet these demands, the supply base of these materials will have to scale at an unprecedented rate. That’s what’s behind the drive for diversity of supply on land-based mining, as well as exploration of alternatives such as deep-sea mining.” 

Barron estimates The Metals Company’s single NORI-D Project, has a lifetime adjusted earnings value of $85 billion, after paying about $8.5 billion to the countries that are sponsoring it. And that single project is only about 22% of the total resources the company can claim.

The Metals Company isn’t alone in its interest in the central Pacific region.

On March 16, Norway’s Loke Marine Minerals announced it acquired two deep-sea mineral licenses located in the Clarion Clipperton Zone previously owned by Lockheed Martin’s UK Seabed Resources.

For Barron, seeing Lockheed sell 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’ve been no help to the industry whatsoever. They are a big name, but they don’t do anything. They are a defense contractor. Their business is making bombs and warplanes. So the fact that we’ve got an active company from Norway, owned by some of the state entities of Norway, I think it’s a massive positive for the industry and we’re delighted about it.”

Finding consensus for the Wild West of the sea

Opponents of deep-sea mining want to tap the brakes, though. Big companies, including BMW, Google, Patagonia, Samsung, Volkswagen and Volvo have made a public call for a moratorium on the practice.

The pilot nodule collector vehicle designed by Allseas for use by The Metals Company. Photo provided by The Metals Company.

Photo courtesy The Metals Company

The WWF and Greenpeace worked together to coordinate the call to get businesses to sign on to the moratorium.

“Our goal is to eliminate primary users from the market, so that even if the industry passes political hurdles, there will be less of a demand for metals extracted from the seafloor,” said Arlo Hemphill, the global corporate lead of Greenpeace’s Stop Deep Sea Mining Campaign. “Companies like Volkswagen and Google have substantial influence in the countries they work, so their support of the political moratorium on deep-sea mining is also of value here.”

The Metals Company, on the flip side, published on Tuesday a lifecycle assessment finding that determined the environmental impact of the metals coming out of the NORI-D project will be less damaging than land mining for nearly every category of battery components.

But Amon worries that this thesis is wrong and that deep-sea mining will simply add to, rather than replace, terrestrial mining.

“What is likely to happen is that if deep-sea mining begins, both will occur, one is not going to cancel out the other,” she said.

She also said that further innovation in battery technology could provide an alternative to the current technologies that are so heavily dependent on these minerals, so the decision shouldn’t be rushed.

A 40-centimeter long elasipod sea cucumber seen here about to be collected as part of an expidition of the Clarion Clipperton Zone by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This sea cucumber has92 feet, seven lips, and numerous spikey processes, and was found at 3,500 meters.

Photo courtesy the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Ultimately, this is, this is about collective decision-making,” Amon said. “We’re talking about areas beyond national jurisdiction, or international waters, which is where mineral resources belong to everyone on the planet.”

But Barron says mining will happen regardless, as the need for these metals is growing. So it’s better to decide than to wait.

“The problem is, if we don’t get this agreed, it will just happen without regulations,” Barron said. “And that’s going to be really bad. Imagine that there’s no reporting. You could just not take the care and consideration that companies like us do. It could be the Wild West, and that would be a disaster for our oceans and for our planet.”

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Why there are still conflict minerals in our electronics

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