The ocean covers more than 70% of our planet, and over 80% of the ocean floor remains undiscovered, uncharted, and unmapped. In contrast, 100% of the surface of Mars has been mapped— thus the adage that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do the deep sea. Because of our limited knowledge of these ecosystems and the creatures that live there, many believe that the environmental damage of deep-sea mining will outweigh the benefits. Deep-sea mining companies want to extract potato-sized rocks with rare earth metals from the sea floor.Trillions of nodules litter the sea floor, each containing manganese, cobalt, copper, and nickel, essential for electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines.

Why the Demand for Deep-Sea Mining?

 

Climate change is one of the most pressing ecological issues of our time–many argue it is the issue of our time–and reducing greenhouse gasses is a key component of averting its worst impacts. One avenue to reduce emissions is through renewable energy, but these technologies are not without their own issues. 

Current renewable energy technology requires rare earth metals, many of which are actually quite common but are called rare because they are not often found in large amounts that can be easily or economically extracted. These include elements like silicon, cobalt, lithium, and manganese, which are critical for the renewable energy sector.

Demand for renewable energy is expected to grow exponentially over the coming decades–by as much as 400-600 percent according to some estimates–and the need for minerals like lithium used in electric vehicle batteries could increase by a staggering 4,000 percent. One analysis projected that almost 400 new mines will be needed to meet future demand for electric vehicle batteries by 2035, mostly for lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite.

Extracting these elements is an energy-intensive and highly polluting process, complicating a shift to “clean” energy. Coupled with widespread human rights violations, including child labor, the question of where to safely and ethically obtain these critical metals arises.

Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that this industry would provide a potential solution for supplying these metals, as trillions of nodules filled with rare earth metals litter the floor of the deep sea. Of deep-sea mining, David Attenborough has said, "Mining means destruction, and in this case, it means the destruction of an ecosystem about which we know pathetically little."

In July 2023, the International Seabed Authority announced that it is delaying adopting rules to extract seabed minerals until at least 2025. While deep-sea mining for commercial purposes has not begun, companies and countries are gearing up to mine the seabed for nodules. Deep-sea mining proponents argue that deep-sea mining is vital to avert the worst impacts of climate change and that the remaining land-based sources of these rare Earth metals will come at an enormous environmental and social cost. Moreover, proponents are advocating for deep-sea mining to begin as soon as possible. Opponents argue that deep-sea mining would be catastrophic for ocean ecosystems and cause irreversible damage, that the arbitrary date of 2025 is far too soon, and that more time should be spent fully understanding the impacts of deep-sea mining.

 

Source: ISA, 2021.

 

This is the first time we have the opportunity to regulate an extractive industry before it begins, and our decisions over the next two years will impact not only future generations but entire ocean ecosystems for millions of years.

ISSUES AT PLAY

Ecological Impacts

  • Will destroy deep-sea ecosystems by removing nodules from the seafloor, destroying deep-sea biodiversity and threatening deep-sea ecosystem services. 
  • Will cause sediment dispersal in the deep sea and throughout the water column, the impacts of which remain largely unknown. 
  • The certain destruction of deep-sea ecosystems through nodule removal
  • The uncertain impacts of sediment to the deep sea and throughout the water column.
  • Will destroy Earth’s last great remaining wilderness, a vast majority of which we know nothing about. 

Financial Conflicts of Interest

Deep-sea mining companies say they are pursuing it for the betterment of humankind, but they have invested billions of dollars into an industry that is not yet operational. If deep-sea mining does not begin in 2025, these companies run the risk of going bankrupt.The International Seabed Authority receives payments from mining companies for every application they review, potentially incentivizing them to greenlight as many applications as possible. 

Difficulty Monitoring Deep-Sea Mining Operations

  • Monitoring operations will be complicated and costly, as they will occur in international waters at depths that are impossible for humans to reach without sophisticated technology. 
  • The International Seabed Authority has limited resources to monitor this industry and will have little ability to oversee the impacts of mining. 

Technological Innovation

Technological innovation may eventually eliminate the dramatic demand for critical metals. Thus, pursuing deep-sea mining would cause irreparable damage for irrelevant technology. 

Public Interest

  • The public must understand why there is a pursuit for deep-sea metals and where the metals for the growing renewable energy sector come from. 
  • The public must understand that the resources found in the deep sea are the common heritage of humankind and that the ISA is accountable to the public. 
  • The more the public can voice their concerns over deep-sea mining (whether it be the environmental impacts or the clear financial conflicts of interest), the better chance we have to inform policymakers and other advocate groups about why a moratorium or precautionary pause on deep sea mining should be enacted.

 

Source: (Drazen et al., 2020)

Take a Deep Dive into Deep-Sea Mining

DEMAND FOR METALS 

Rare earth metals are used for a variety of appliances that we come across in our everyday lives: (U.S GAO 2021)

  • Mn (Manganese): Used in steel
  • Co (Cobalt): Used for rechargeable batteries
  • Cu (Copper): Used for electrical wiring
  • Ni (Nickel): Used in wind turbines 

 

BACKGROUND 

How did these minerals get to the bottom of the ocean? The ‘potato’ shaped manganese nodules occur in the abyssal plains of all major oceans (Kuhn et al. 2017). They start their formation with a “nucleus”, which can be a piece of sand, bone, or other material that the minerals slowly start clustering around as they are moved through the large scale ocean currents. They are slow forming, growing only about 1-5 millimeters every million years (Kuhn et al. 2017). Minerals such as manganese, cobalt, and nickel collect in the highest quantities and are considered valuable rare earth metals. The nodules form in areas like the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), which boasts one of the largest deposits of nodules–1.5 million sq miles–almost equal to the size of the European Union (Kuhn et al. 2017). 

A big issue with assessing impacts is that it is difficult and expensive to conduct scientific research in the deep-sea areas where mining would occur, and therefore little is known about deep-sea biodiversity, seafloor communities, and connectivity. (Thompson et al. 2023). 

There is currently a moratorium, signed by over 700 scientists and nations, to halt extraction of minerals through deep-sea mining until more research is conducted to better understand its effects on ocean ecosystems. France, Chile and Costa Rica are at the forefront of calling on the ISA to schedule talks in 2024 about officially adopting a moratorium on deep sea mining. In July 2023, the ISA announced that it will officially delay the adoption of the mining code until at least 2025. Countries and scientists calling for a moratorium or precautionary pause can utilize these next two years to advocate for an official pause on this new industry. 

 

HISTORY

Manganese nodules were first discovered on the seafloor in the 1870s by the HMS Challenger, which was on an exploratory mission to map out the ocean and the marine environment (Scarminach 2019). The technology to explore the deep sea did not emerge until the mid-20th century, and in the 1960s, the prospect of extracting deep- sea nodules became a real possibility. Countries worldwide began to voice their interest in recovering the metallic nodules, while many countries feared that deep-sea mining could cause irreparable harm to the environment and create an economic disadvantage for certain countries. The Maltese ambassador to the United Nations urged the UN to designate the resources found in the deep-sea as the “common heritage of all mankind” (Scarminach 2019). The United Nations listened to this plea, and negotiations began in 1973 to start developing a set of international rules and regulations that would govern how resources were to be extracted. In 1982 a set of rules and regulations were agreed upon and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was established, and came to be known as the Law of the Sea (Scarminach 2019). 

 

MAJOR PLAYERS

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea established rules and regulations for how resources from international waters–a majority of the world’s ocean– can be used. One hundred sixty-eight nations are now members of UNCLOS, and countries that sign this treaty agree to the rules of the Law of the Sea. Here is a list of all the parties that have signed UNCLOS on the UN website. The United States is the largest industrial nation not to sign or ratify UNCLOS (Wood 2007). UNCLOS established that all resources in the deep-sea were for the common good of humanity, but who would be able to mine such resources? 

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica, was established to manage this. The ISA allows countries who are members in UNCLOS to sponsor mining companies. Starting in the 2000s, multinational corporations began their pursuit of obtaining sponsorship from UNCLOS states to gain the contracts needed for commercial mining. A considerable player has been DeepGreen Metals, a multinational corporation based in British Columbia that was able to secure an exploration contract in the CCZ with sponsorship from the small Pacific Island nation of Nauru. DeepGreen is now known as The Metals Company and is the corporate entity responsible for pushing the ISA to develop its Mining Code.

Can Countries Mine In Their Own Waters?

Yes, under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), nations can use and extract resources within 200 miles of their coasts. This 200 mile area is called an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). These EEZs’ can be extended to include an extended continental shelf which gives the country more area to use however they want. Multiple nations have already begun participating in deep sea mining in these areas. For example, Japan has started developing deep sea mining at depths between 2,500 and 6,000 meters in its territorial waters.

Within the United States, each state is free to regulate seabed mining on their own and in 2022, California passed the California Seabed Mining Prevention Act which protects 2,500 square miles from seabed mining. Other states that have banned seabed mining include Oregon and Washington. 

 

CURRENT STATE OF DEEP-SEA MINING

The ISA has granted a total of 31 exploration contracts to 22 contractors from around the world. An exploration contract is a 15-year deal allowing contractors to explore a designated area in the deep sea for rare earth minerals (ISA exploration contracts). 

There are three types of mineral deposits of interest. First, Polymetallic Nodules are potato-shaped and ripe with metals like manganese, nickel, copper, and cobalt. The majority of these nodules are located in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, located between Hawaii and Mexico, and in the Central Indian Ocean (ISA info). The second mineral deposits of interest are Polymetallic Sulphides, located along hydrothermal vents, and last are the thick Cobalt Rich Crusts along deep-sea mounts (ISA info). Most of the exploration contracts are for Polymetallic Nodules, with the majority of exploration occurring in the Clarion Clipperton Zone. 

We have only studied a very small percentage of the deep-sea - the majority of this vast ecosystem remains relatively unexplored. If deep-sea mining were to begin this year, there would be inevitable destruction of this little-known ecosystem, and environmental impacts to the rest of the ocean are unclear. Due to the uncertainty surrounding the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining, countries worldwide are calling for a precautionary pause on this industry (Save the High Seas). At the same time, the ISA is moving forward in drafting its Mining Code. The Mining Code is a large set of rules and policies that will regulate future commercial deep sea mining. If the Mining Code is released, this will allow deep-sea mining to move from the exploration phase to the extraction phase. With the Mining Code set to be released in July, countries are moving fast to voice their opposition or support to this development. During the writing of this website, up to 14 countries have expressed their opposition to deep-sea mining (Save the High Seas), as well as NGOs, indigenous groups, and multinational corporations.