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Surfing a wave of controversy over deep-sea mining

Diving into risk? The ocean depths are rich with metals and minerals critical for the clean economy transition.

Impossible Mining robot

Impossible Mining, one of several startups focused on deep sea mining, is advocating for deep testing prior to commercialization. Image courtesy of Impossible Mining

"We have to create the legal framework to stop high seas mining and not to allow new activities that endanger ecosystems."

That statement by French President Emmanuel Macron during a side event at the United Nations Ocean Conference earlier this summer hooked attention for an issue every climate tech entrepreneur should reflect on deeply: the race by mining companies to dive into exploration and extraction activities in the deep sea, on the hunt for oil and gas, as well as mineral deposits and nodules rich in manganese, iron, nickel, copper, cobalt and other metals vital for electric vehicle batteries or clean energy generation.

What most news stories failed to report, however, was Macron’s next comment: "My point is at the same time, I think we have to promote our scientists and explorers to better know and discover these high seas … We need to better understand in order to better protect."

The urgency of what is at stake is tangible. Last year, the tiny Micronesian country of Nauru triggered a legal process under which it could begin commercial extraction by July 2023 — under whatever regulations and rules are in place at that time. That has sent the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — responsible for setting rules to "organize, regulate and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area for the benefit of mankind as a whole" — scrambling to comply. Indeed, according to environmental group Greenpeace, ISA has already approved 31 contracts to begin "commercial exploitation." It has been hosting negotiations this summer, mostly behind closed doors.

The concern is that no one really knows what impact these mining and extraction activities might have on the deep ocean floor. Picture the worst practices of terrestrial mining. Now imagine that happening 4 or 5 miles below the ocean surface. (The deep sea is generally defined as what’s below 656 feet of depth.)

It’s not just seabed mining; it is the whole responsible metals approach that we should be concerned about.

The situation has inspired a tsunami of criticism from activist groups, including Greenpeace, and has prompted calls for a moratorium by countries including Chile (seeking a 15-year freeze on the practice), Palau, Fiji and Samoa and by businesses including BMW Group, Google, Patagonia, Philips, Renault, Rivian, Samsung, Scania, Volkswagen and Volvo. Other companies including Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Microsoft and Tiffany have written clauses into their procurement policies that exclude deep-sea minerals, according to the organization that organized the moratorium statements, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. A half-dozen or so banks and financial institutions, including Lloyds Banking Group and NatWest, have pledged not to invest in these activities, according to its research.

Earlier this year, the U.N. Environment Program published an analysis suggesting how financial institutions should respond to the deep-sea mining sector. Here’s one of the biggest takeaways: "In the context of ongoing work being undertaken by UNEP FI with respect to financing the sustainable blue economy, there is no foreseeable way in which the financing of deep-sea mining activities can be viewed as consistent with the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles or compatible with the spirit and intent of the Sustainable Blue Economy." 

An uncharted realm

In the case of deep-sea mining, what we don’t know is one of the biggest arguments for pushing pause.

According to a statement so far signed by more than 650 marine scientists and policy experts from more than 44 countries (including Esri Chief Scientist Dawn Wright, speaking this year at VERGE 22), the deep ocean is one of the world’s most expansive carbon sinks, one that provides critical ecosystem services for global fisheries. But we know very little about how it actually does this — only 20 percent of the seafloor is mapped, and just 1.1 percent of the regions being considered for deep-sea exploration have enough data available to understand the risk mining might pose to biodiversity and other ecological factors.

According to the statement signed by those scientists, these are some causes for concern:

  • Loss of "unique and ecologically important species" due to the destruction or degradation of the seafloor habitat
  • The creation of sediment plumes that could spread beyond mining sites
  • Interruption of ecosystem services
  • Contamination related to the wastewater created by mining operations
  • Noise pollution
  • Uncertain impacts on carbon sequestration processes

"We strongly recommend that the transition to the exploitation of mineral resources be paused until sufficient and robust scientific information has been obtained to make informed decisions as to whether deep-sea mining can be authorized without significant damage to the marine environment and, if so, under what condition," the statement reads.

Should we or shouldn’t we?

The big dilemma, of course, is that the seafloor is believed to be rich with resources that are vitally important for the transition to a clean economy. Those resources could also be a valuable source of income for emerging economies (such as Nauru) that host these minerals and metals in their national waters. 

To be clear, no deep-sea commercial mining is going on at the moment, but testing is going on in the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean, considered the greatest potential trove for polymetallic nodules, and activities are occurring at shallower depths.

To better understand what’s next, I spoke with Renee Grogan, a signatory of the group calling for research and testing, who also happens to be the co-founder and chief sustainability officer for Impossible Mining, a Canadian startup developing technology for harvesting polymetallic nodules that lie on the ocean floor. The company raised an additional $10.1 million in seed funding in June to help fund pilots of its technology.

We strongly recommend that the transition to the exploitation of mineral resources be paused until sufficient and robust scientific information has been obtained to make informed decisions ...

Impossible proposes using autonomous robots and artificial intelligence to search out and collect nodules that can be harvested for their metals and minerals. The technology is endowed with features designed to help it avoid fragile sealife, such as coral tendrils, as well as the sediment, Grogan said.

The company is also working on a bio-extraction technique that removes the metals from the nodules using bacteria and without relying on acids, toxic chemicals or extreme heat, she said. "It’s not just seabed mining; it is the whole responsible metals approach that we should be concerned about," Grogan told me. "It is not a single headline story."

As part of her argument, she pointed to the supply chain for cobalt, which even today rests on the backs of at least 40,000 child laborers. Rather than dismissing alternatives outright, there needs to be a sharper focus on responsible experimentation, she said. Impossible Mining is actively engaging with a number of the scientists signing the statement seeking research on deep-sea mining, Grogan noted, and is incorporating elements of their recommendations into its product development.

Impossible Mining is just one company, of course. One of the most high-profile startups in deep-sea mining, The Metals Co. (formerly DeepGreen Metals), in mid-July said it is working with an Australian research consortium to sketch out an ecosystems management and monitoring program related to its collection operations in the Clarion Clipperton Zone. The blueprint will be used to create a predictive technology that builds on what The Metals Co. has already learned and that can be shared with others.

It’s clear that any mining company with deep-sea aspirations has a responsibility to participate in developing approaches that minimize their impact, or they could see their business plans scuttled by an ocean of opposition. And companies building the essential components of everything from EVs to wind turbines to solar panels should be asking their suppliers deeper questions about the source of the materials they’re building them with. "Every form of mining has an impact — even selective harvesting will have an impact," Grogan acknowledged.  

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