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Fresh study calls for moratorium on deep-sea mining

The Metals Co, formerly known as DeepGreen, intends to produce metals from polymetalic rocks, found in deep oceans.(Image courtesy of The Metals Company.)

A coalition of non-profit organizations is pushing for an international moratorium on deep-sea mining following a fresh report that warns of potential irreversible damage to Pacific island states including Kiribati, the Cook Islands, Nauru, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and Tuvalu.

“Accumulated scientific evidence indicates that the impacts of nodule mining in the Pacific Ocean would be extensive, severe and last for generations, causing essentially irreversible damage,” the report, commissioned by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign and MiningWatch Canada, found.

Academics and scientists fear that deep-sea mining could devastate fragile ecosystems that are slow to recover in the highly pressurized darkness of the deep sea

Polymetallic nodules — potato-sized metals-rich rocks that lie in a shallow layer of mud on the seafloor — are believed to be rich in cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese and rare earths.

According to the US Geological Survey, as the deep-sea accounts for more than half the world’s surface, its riches are several times higher than those found in all land reserves combined.

DeepGreen Metals, a Canadian start-up planning to extract cobalt and other battery metals from the seafloor, believes that deep-sea mining has the potential to eliminate or dramatically reduce most of the environmental and social impacts associated with traditional mining.

Unlike other seafloor miners, the company doesn’t want to drill, blast or dig the bottom of the ocean. Its main goal is to scoop up the small metallic rocks located thousands of metres under water.

Opponents, however, are not sure the method chosen by DeepGreen is as harmless as it sounds.

“DeepGreen promotes deep sea mining as creating great wealth with minimal or no adverse impacts,” Helen Rosenbaum of the Deep Sea Mining Campaign said in a statement. “The science does not support their claims. In fact, the best available research clearly indicates that the mining of deep sea nodules will place Pacific island states at great risk.”

More research needed

Mining companies exploring the seafloor argue the extraction of those deep-buried riches could help diversify the current sources of battery metals.

Academics and scientists, however, are concerned by the lack of research on the possible impacts of high seas mining.

“Expectations that nodule mining would generate social and economic gains for Pacific island economies are based on conjecture,” the 52-page report released this week by a coalition of 80 NGOs said. “The impacts of mining on communities and people’s health are uncertain and require rigorous independent studies.”

“Predicting the Impacts of Mining Deep Sea Polymetallic Nodules in the Pacific Ocean,” based on 250 peer-reviewed scientific and other related articles, warns of severe and long-lasting impact on fish species. It also claims the activity could pose significant risks to marine ecosystems due to the interconnected nature of the ocean.

“The stakes are extremely high with Pacific economies, cultures, livelihoods, fisheries, food security, tourism, and iconic marine species all under threat from deep sea nodule mining.”

Helen Rosenbaum, Deep Sea Mining Campaign

DeepGreen claims that none of the reviewers have in-depth knowledge of the mining industry, adding that most maintain a public stance in favour of a moratorium on deep-sea mining. 

The company also notes it has never said their technique would have no impacts.

“There is no such thing as zero-impact mining and DeepGreen makes no claims to the contrary (…) However, we see nodules as an opportunity to compress the disastrous impacts of land-based mining,” it told MINING.COM in an emailed response to the study.

Two years ago, the European Parliament called for a ban on seabed mining until the environmental impacts and risks of disturbing unique deep-sea ecosystems are understood.

In the resolution, it also urged the European Commission to persuade member states to stop sponsoring and subsidizing licenses to explore and exploit the seabed in international waters as well as within their own territories.

Shortly after, an international team of researchers published a set of criteria to help the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body made up of 168 countries, protect biodiversity from deep-sea mining activities.

So far, it has granted 30 explorations licenses —  25 in the Pacific Ocean and 18 of those in the Clarion Clipperton Zone which stretches from Kiribati to Mexico.