Deep-sea mining boom raises environmental concerns

Deep-sea mining boom raises environmental concerns

Over the past year, it has become clear that deep-sea mining of metals and minerals is likely to be approved in some regions of the world, as companies fight for the right to invest in innovative mining projects. Huge reserves of important minerals lie beneath the world’s seabed, so companies are becoming more and more eager to begin deep-sea mining to extract these minerals as demand continues to rise. The push for a global green transition has driven up global demand for minerals such as nickel, copper and cobalt. To meet this need, mining activities on land have intensified in recent years, and some companies are betting on meeting this demand from the sea. However, scientists are concerned about the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining, such as the potential disruption to marine ecosystems.

Earlier this year, Norway approved the world’s first deep-sea mining operation, with the government suggesting it could be less environmentally damaging than mining on land. There is an abundance of potato-sized tubers of critical minerals that Norway says are crucial to a green transition. However, Norway did not plan to start mining immediately, with the government wanting to review mining companies’ applications for license approval on a case-by-case basis. However, as there is no international regulatory framework for deep-sea mining, there have been concerns about the potential environmental impact of the operation.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN regulator overseeing deep-sea mining, believes the start of deep-sea mining activities in the coming years is inevitable and is working to develop sectoral regulations. The ISA regulates mining in an area that covers 54 percent of the world’s oceans and represents 68 member states plus the EU, but not the US. The ISA has set a goal of enacting regulations on deep-sea mining by 2025. However, 24 countries have called for a halt to deep-sea mining, supported by several major companies such as Google, Samsung and Volvo, citing a lack of awareness of the impacts of such activities.

ISA Secretary General Michael Lodge is fighting to draft environmental regulations that would allow deep-sea mining in the Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico. However, his opponent Leticia Carvalho believes it could take several years to draft the regulations needed to regulate the sector and that no mining applications should be approved during that time. Leadership elections are coming up and whoever takes the reins of the ISA will have significant influence over deep-sea mining, with several countries in favour on economic grounds and some strongly opposed to the idea on environmental grounds.

There is currently a great deal of controversy over the ISA’s leadership on ocean issues. There have been recent allegations of fraud that could undermine the legitimacy of the organization’s upcoming agenda. It recently came to light that a former senior ISA executive filed a complaint with the United Nations in May accusing Lodge and his top deputy of misusing the organization’s funds. Supporters of each candidate have accused the other side of trying to influence the election outcome by offering to cover delegates’ travel expenses and pay delegations’ overdue membership fees. Since countries in arrears are not allowed to vote, this could affect the election outcome.

Last month, the ambassador of Kiribati, a small Pacific island nation that supports Michael Lodge’s candidacy, called on Carvalho to resign in exchange for a possible high-ranking position at the Seabed Authority. In response to the allegations, Lodge stated: “You have a collection of vague, unsubstantiated, baseless and anonymous rumors, gossip and hearsay that are demonstrably untrue, have no basis in fact or evidence and do not stand up to objective scrutiny.”

Last month, Japan announced it had made a new discovery of over 200 million tons of manganese nodules rich in battery metals in the Pacific Ocean within the country’s exclusive economic zone. Experts from the University of Tokyo and the Nippon Foundation found the deposits on the seabed near Minamitorishima, a remote island of Tokyo, at a depth of about 5,500 meters. The Nippon Foundation and its partners hope to start mining the nodules in 2025 to support Japan’s green energy industry.

With more countries seeking to engage in deep sea mining following the discovery of several important mineral deposits in recent years, the ISA must act quickly to ensure the sector is adequately regulated. The lack of regulation means that governments and private companies could begin mining without the right rules in place to ensure compliance with safety standards to protect the environment. However, given the recent controversy surrounding the election of the ISA chair, the organisation must restore the trust of its member states while continuing to develop mining regulations in line with previous goals for a mining law.

By Felicity Bradstock for

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