Deep-sea mining worries environmentalists

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (HPD) — High demand for copper, cobalt and other minerals is driving the mining industry to explore the deepest oceans, worrying scientists and environmentalists, who warn that extracting minerals from crucial ecosystems could cause irreparable damage.

Deep-sea mining will be the subject of discussion for dozens of scientists, lawyers and officials gathered in Jamaica for a two-week conference organized by the International Seabed Authority, an independent body created by a United Nations treaty.

The organization safeguards the deep waters of the oceans that are outside the jurisdiction of all countries. So far it has issued 31 exploration licenses and many fear that in a short time the next step will be taken and mining in international waters will be authorized without being regulated.

Experts warn this could trigger a race to extract minerals that have formed over millions of years, with an invasion of noise, light and storms of floating sediments deep in the world’s oceans.

“It is one of the most pristine parts of our planet. There is much to be lost,” said Dr. Diva Amon, a marine biologist, National Geographic explorer, and science advisor to the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The first prospecting license was issued at the beginning of the century. Most of the activity is concentrated in the Clarión-Clipperton fracture zone, which covers 4.5 million square kilometers (1.7 million square miles) between Hawaii and Mexico. At least 17 of the 31 licenses have been issued for this area, with explorations at a depth of 4,000 to 6,000 meters (13,000 to 19,000 feet).

The campaign for deep-sea mining has grown to the point that the authority meets three times a year instead of twice, with a key decision expected in July 2023.

Mining companies argue that extracting minerals from the seafloor rather than the land is cheaper and avoids “a multitude of environmental and social problems,” according to UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. that explores the Clipperton- Clarión under two contracts.

“We will not have dam collapses, destruction of cultural sites, deforestation of forests, artisanal mining children, to mention just a few recent ones,” UK Seabed Resources said in a statement, referring to the impacts of mining on land.

The International Seabed Authority issues licenses to state-owned companies and countries that have signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and agree to sponsor private companies seeking to explore international waters for copper, nickel, cobalt, iron, manganese and other minerals. The United States is not a signatory to the convention.

The International Energy Agency estimates that demand for minerals will increase sixfold by 2050, given that electric vehicles and renewable energy rely so heavily on them, according to a Fitch Ratings report from early October.

“The emissions intensity of cobalt, aluminum and nickel mining and processing is high, so rampant demand growth would result in a net increase in carbon footprint,” the IEA said.

The small island of Nauru, northeast of Australia, is leading the campaign in favor of mining, arguing that climate change poses a high risk and seeks an economic benefit from the extraction of metals necessary in part for green technology, Like electric car batteries.

The campaign worries countries from Germany to Costa Rica that will try to strengthen regulations in the next two weeks.

“We are still very worried about the consequences,” said Elza Moreira Marcelino de Castro, the Brazilian representative at the conference that began Monday.

French President Emmanuel Macron said months ago that he supports a ban on deep-sea mining. Several large companies have promised not to use minerals extracted from the seabed and Germany, New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa, among other countries, are calling for a moratorium until the possible environmental impact is better known, a proposal applauded by scientists and legal experts.

“You can’t regulate what you don’t understand,” said Duncan Currie, an environmental lawyer and legal adviser to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, a Netherlands-based alliance of environmental groups.

Less than 1% of the world’s deep waters have been explored, an undertaking that experts say is expensive, technically difficult and time-consuming.

The ocean is known to contain more carbon than Earth’s atmosphere, plants, and soil, and scientists continue to find unknown species during rare voyages of exploration. Sample analysis takes months and even years, Amon said. One of the recent discoveries is that of a ghost octopus that has been nicknamed “Casper”.

“We do not understand what lives there, how it lives, the global function that this ecosystem fulfills and what we would irreversibly lose if we impacted it,” he warned. Life in the deep sea is incredibly slow, with minerals growing by one to 10 millimeters every million years, she added. “That means it’s highly vulnerable to shocks and extremely slow to recover.”

According to the global network Deep Ocean Monitoring Initiative (DOSI), some experts believe that collecting the data needed to protect the marine environment from deep-sea mining would take between six and 20 years.

Other concerns include how revenues would be distributed and how the activities of companies seeking license would be monitored and regulated.

Pradeep Singh, of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Study in Potsdam, Germany, said the so-called “convenience permits” are cause for concern. It is about the search by private companies from countries with tax exemptions, lax environmental laws and other benefits.

“Many states are beginning to worry about these behind-the-scenes relationships,” he assured.

He also noted that it is feared that the International Seabed Authority will obtain a part of the income from mining, since it is this agency that grants the licenses: “It is a great conflict of interest.”

The authority did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Lodge, secretary general of the International Seabed Authority, said at the beginning of the conference that it is about ensuring the protection of the marine environment while member countries prepare their draft resolutions.

During a meeting earlier this year, the authority expanded a protected zone to 1.97 million square kilometers in a vast region for which most exploration licenses have been granted.

Environmental management plans for other areas are still under development.


Associated Press climate and environment coverage is supported by several private foundations. The HPD is solely responsible for the content.

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