Underarmed Island States Pledge to Combat Deep Sea Mining

Lisbon (AFP) – A handful of South Pacific nations have this week launched an uphill battle against deep-sea mining of fist-sized loose rocks rich in rare-earth metals.

The stakes are potentially huge.

Companies keen to scrape the ocean floor five to six thousand meters (17,000 to 20,000 feet) below sea level could earn billions by harvesting currently used manganese, cobalt, copper and nickel to make batteries for electric vehicles.

But the extraction process would disfigure what may be the most pristine ecosystem on the planet and could take nature millennia or more to repair itself.

The deep-sea gems in question, called polymetallic nodules, grow with the help of microbes over millions of years around a core of organic matter, like a shark’s tooth or the bone of a whale.

“These are living rocks, not just dead rocks,” said Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in Lisbon.

“I consider them miracles.”

A nascent deep-sea mining industry also sees them as miraculous, although for different reasons.

“High grades of four metals in a single rock means four times less ore needs to be processed to get the same amount of metal,” notes The Metals Company, which has formed exploratory partnerships with three South Pacific countries – Nauru , Kiribati and Tonga – in the mineral-rich Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone.

The nodules also have low levels of heavy elements, which means less toxic waste compared to land mining, according to the company.

Commercial mining has not started anywhere in the world, but around 20 research institutes or companies hold exploration contracts with the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in the Indian, Pacific Oceans and Atlantic.

Surangel Whipps Jr., President of Palau, launched the anti-mine campaign at the just-concluded UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, flanked by Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

“Deep sea mining compromises the integrity of our ocean habitat and should be discouraged wherever possible,” Whipps said, calling for an indefinite moratorium.

Like-minded neighboring nation states of Samoa, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands have backed the call, along with more than 100, mostly environmentalist, lawmakers from three dozen countries around the world.

A similar motion put to a vote last September before the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – an umbrella organization of 1,400 research institutes, environmental NGOs and indigenous groups – passed easily.

‘Who is watching?’

“Mining, wherever it occurs, is well known to have environmental costs,” said Earle, the scientist.

“On land, at least, we can monitor, see and fix problems, and minimize damage. Six thousand meters (20,000 feet) below the surface, who’s watching?”

But in Lisbon, explicit support from other countries for a temporary ban on seabed mining on the high seas, outside national territorial waters known as exclusive economic zones (EEZs), was rare.

Chile intervened, calling for a 15-year pause to allow more research.

The United States, along with other developed countries, has taken a more ambiguous position, calling for a scientific assessment of environmental impacts, but not closing the door on future mining.

“We have not taken an official position on this,” US climate envoy John Kerry told AFP in an interview.

“But we have expressed serious concerns about adequately researching the impacts of any deep-sea mining, and we have not endorsed any.”

French President Emmanuel Macron at the Lisbon Oceanarium, on the sidelines of the United Nations Ocean Conference Ludovic MARIN AFP/File

To the surprise of many in Lisbon, French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to approve of halting deep-sea mining, despite the fact that France holds mining exploration licenses from ISA, the intergovernmental body responsible for supervising the exploitation of the seabed.

“I think we must, indeed, create the legal framework to stop deep sea mining and not allow new activities that endanger these ecosystems,” Macron said at a side event.

“We must promote our scientists and explorers to better know and discover these high seas.”

Opponents of deep sea mining were delighted with the statement, but are waiting to see what comes next.

“Will the French government make diplomatic efforts to ensure that what it has announced actually happens? We’ll see,” said Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.

Time is running out because last year Nauru, in cooperation with The Metals Company, triggered a rule requiring the ISA to finalize regulations for deep sea mining worldwide within two years.

The ISA, criticized for its lack of transparency and preference for corporate interests, meets later this month in Kingston, Jamaica.

Sources say they will likely try to push through a draft regulation which, if passed, could see mining operations permitted by this time next year.

Lynn A. Saleh