Countries and Corporations Are Getting Cold Feet About Mining the Seabed For Minerals Essential to the Green Energy Transformation

Meetings of foreign bodies that discuss maritime law beyond their national jurisdiction aren’t something you should see. But this year I am paying very close attention to the International Seabed Authority’s (ISA) general assembly in Jamaica (and online, due to pandemic travel restrictions) which concludes tomorrow. After all, the fate of the world’s oceans, or at least a significant chunk of them, is at stake. As is the fate of battery-powered electric vehicles.

The discussion about Nauru’s status as a Pacific Island nation was at the top of last Friday’s agenda. It discussed whether Nauru should have the right to mine for the minerals necessary for EV battery production. Nickel and cobalt are both found in the international waters around the coast of Mexico. Industry estimates say that the area known as the Clarion clipperton Zone is rich in enough cobalt-packed multimetallic nodules for 4.8 billion electric vehicle batteries. Mining them would be as simple as vacuuming golf balls off a putting green, says Gerard Barron, the Australian CEO of seabed-mining company the Metals Company, which would do the work—and earn the lion’s share of profits—should Nauru be allowed to go ahead with its plan.
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Marine biologists, conservationists, environmental activists and marine biologists fear that ocean mining could do irreversible harm to an unexplored subsea environment, home to microscopic invertebrates (worms, sponges, and other microorganisms). “If ocean mining is green-lighted it could … significantly threaten important species, inflict irreversible damage to sensitive ocean habitats, source toxins into seafood via contaminated water plumes and disrupt key carbon stores in the deep ocean critical to combating climate change,” warns Douglas McCauley, a professor of Ocean Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. (He is also the director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative research center, which is funded by TIME’s owners, Lynn and Mark Benioff.)

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The ISA is a group of 168 countries, including the European Union, that is charged with protecting international seabed fauna and flora. In an absurdity best appreciated by foxes guarding henhouses, it is also responsible for deciding who can exploit the sea floor, and under what conditions—and the royalties derived from such mining cover ISA’s operational costs, with the rest divvied up among member nations. The odds against sea sponges were clear.

The foxes appear to now have a conscience, as they were able to see last week. Multiple member states, including Germany, Belgium, Costa Rica, Chile, Russia and Ghana, rejected a call by the body’s Secretary-General to adopt regulations for commercial deep-sea mining that would have allowed Nauru to start harvesting nodules in 2023.

According to ISA rules, mining licenses cannot be issued until the body decides on the environmental and financial policies that will regulate the industry—a complicated, consensus-based procedure that has been going on for nearly 30 years. There is, however, a loophole: a country can notify the ISA of its intention to mine, and the ISA has two years to either formalize the rules or, if that is not possible, “It shall nonetheless consider and provisionally approve such a plan of work based” on draft regulations. In June, Nauru was the first country to trigger that two-year countdown, forcing the organization’s hand. As with most legal cases it comes down to the linguistic details. Some countries insist that the license must be issued automatically after two years. Others argue that they only have to “consider” it, not grant it.

Some of those countries in the latter camp may have been reacting to a widespread perception that Nauru’s ultimatum appeared to be largely for the benefit of the Metals Company—it came suspiciously close to the mining concern’s public listing on the NASDAQ stock exchange on Sept. 10, 2021. Matthew Gianni is co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and a policy advisor. “The fact that Nauru triggered this two-year rule really focused countries’ minds: is the world going to agree to do this by 2023, or are countries going to take a step back and say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we should reconsider, given what the science is telling us’?”

More than 600 ocean experts have signed an open letter calling for a moratorium in ocean mining. They cited the fragility of the ecosystem as well as the dangers from irreversible damage that could affect the ocean environment.

Numerous international businesses including Philips and Volvo have supported similar moratoriums. These companies stated they will not be using any metals that are derived from seabed mines in their supply chain until thorough research and scientific studies of potential impacts has been completed. “I think the moratoriums did make a difference,” says Gianni. “Especially for countries where those companies are based.”

There are many things that could change our minds in the coming year. According to a May 2021 report by the International Energy Agency, the world isn’t mining enough of the minerals needed to make the batteries that will power that clean-energy future. The demand for cobalt could rise by over 30 percent between 2020 and 2040. This will raise prices, making it more profitable to mine the seabed. Research could prove that mining the seabed can cause long-lasting harm to the ocean floor. Battery makers could find more cost-effective, cheaper alternatives to cobalt. At the moment the foxes appear to be patient. However, if the chickens keep on eating and continue to gain weight they might reconsider.


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