Deep seabed mining could spell environmental mayhem, scientists warn

Countries across the globe, including the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Germany, Brazil, India, Singapore and Russia are going ahead with plans for deep-sea mining, despite major environmental concerns. They are looking for scarce metals, including nickel, manganese, copper and gold. According to the mining companies, these materials will be required to fuel the green revolution so that countries may meet net zero targets by 2050. This claim is being contested by scientists and environmentalists, saying there must be alternatives, and that it is not worth the risk of harming one of this most under-researched and fragile environments on the planet.

As these organizations announce their permits and plans, they claim to take a cautious approach to the environment, but we need to hear from biologists and conservationists to understand the problem. A paper published this year in Frontiers challenged the need for deep seabed mining. There are great uncertainties about the environmental effects of deep seabed mining but it is expected to be highly damaging to the mining sites and possibly further afield. This is why conservation bodies, scientists and companies across the world are uniting to call for a global moratorium on all deep seabed mining.

Deep concerns

The underlying issue is that deep-sea mining will focus on the most mineral-rich geological formations under the ocean – the chimneys of hydrothermal vents, where heat from lava and cold water meet. Here are some of the most fragile, under-studied ecosystems on Earth. We understand more about space than the deep ocean, so shoving a hammering robot down there is like blindly shooting at a new planet that we’ve hardly discovered.

The main concern is that the disturbed sediment dredged up by mining would cause pollution and disturb the intake of food by the resident sealife, most of which are new to science. According to the PEW charitable trusts, 90% of species in the Clarion-Clipperton zone are undiscovered. Deep sea-life is also highly sensitive to the light levels and nutrition available in the normally settled waters that would be severely disturbed by underwater mining ROVs.

Who's giving the go ahead?

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is made up of members of over 150 countries and the European Union, established under the UN convention of the law of the sea. ISA is under scrutiny from conservationists as it has has already given 15-year contracts for the exploration of polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in the deep seabed with 22 contractors.

The ISA outlined its contribution to prevent "environmental harm through developing a global regulatory framework for deep-seabed mining” in its Action Plan recently published in September 2021. The document states that one of their strategic directions is to “develop scientifically and statistically robust monitoring programmes and methodologies to assess the potential risk for activities in the area to interfere with the ecological balance of the marine environment.” 

An article published by MIT suggests actions can be taken to maintain the protection of sensitive ecosystems and reduce the potential environmental impacts of the industry. On Neptune Mineral's website it says baby steps are part of their philosophy, to gain “knowledge of the ecosystems and implementing measures to protect the biodiversity of deep-sea communities during exploration and mining.”

Even though ISA and seabed mining companies may commit to showing environmental care during their exploration and mining activities, whether it is worth damaging the biodiversity of the ocean is the big question. An overwhelming number of scientists and conservationists say these commitments are are not enough to justify going ahead with deep seabed mining. It is not possible to be carefully in control when there are too many unknowns in these natural settings, especially for a new industry that has not yet started.

By going ahead with deep seabed mining, leaders will need to think about whether it is worth the risk of severely damaging the fragile biodiversity of the deep ocean.

Further examples of companies and countries proceeding:

*Canadian company Nautilus Minerals recently received a 20-year lease by the Papua New Guinean government to mine offshore, up to a mile at depth.  After some legal complications with the Solwara I mining project, the company will be going ahead with the plans. A study has however suggested that the impact assessment the company conducted is flawed. Even so, the company has set up underwater equipment and is proceeding with testing. 

*UK Seabed Resources partners with the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, holding licences and contracts to explore 133,000km2 of the Pacific sea floor for mineral-rich polymetallic nodules.

*Neptune Minerals, based in the USA and Australia, are also leaders of Deep Sea Mining. 

*Some countries are feeling the competitive pressure, such as India where a rare earth mineral processing plant is being developed in the coastal state of Orissa. There will be a new exploration ship and another will be recommissioned for deep sea exploration.

*The Metals Company (TMC) subsidiary Nauru Ocean Resources Inc (NORI), will apply for approval to start mining in the North Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico. They already have exploration permits for an expanse of international seabed as large as France and Germany combined, an area that is likely to expand rapidly.

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