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ABOUT DEEP-SEA MINING

DSCC Position Statement on Deep-Sea Mining

The momentum for a moratorium is growing, check-out the 26 countries who have joined the wave of resistance. 

Amongst the biological riches of the seabed, embedded into its ecosystems, are minerals like copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese. Their potential industrial value means that prospectors are keen to extract these minerals, so a new, highly speculative, deep-sea mining industry is emerging.

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Three types of mining are planned: 

  • Scraping the seabed to suck up polymetallic nodules from the abyssal plains. Polymetallic nodules support a vast range of suspension feeders and sediment communities. 
  • Stripping cobalt crusts from seamounts. Seamounts are biodiversity hotspots, supporting complex ecosystems from their surface to their base. 
  • Extracting polymetallic sulphides from hydrothermal vents. Deep-sea hydrothermal vents support some of the most unique and important ecological communities known to science.

 

Industry is pushing for deep-sea mining to start. As of July 2023, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has entered into 31 exploration contracts with 21 contractors for polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides, and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in the deep seabed. These contracts cover 1.3 million square kilometers of the high seas beyond national jurisdiction – but the total area affected would be far larger.

In the abyssal plains, each polymetallic nodule mining operation could strip 15,000 square kilometers of seabed over the course of a 30-year license, with the indirect effects extending to 75,000 square kilometers. Deep-sea mining could result in one of the largest impacts of any industrial activity on the planet.

The areas of the deep sea where exploration contracts have been issued support some of the most biodiverse and scientifically important ecosystems on Earth. Very few of the species and ecosystems in the areas where mining would occur have been well studied; neither have the potential consequences of mining on these habitats and wider ocean systems. Scientists warn that deep-sea mining would cause permanent loss of biodiversity in the deep sea, but the scale of the loss is currently unknown.

Click here for our factsheets about deep-sea mining.

Opposing deep-sea mining

Mining companies are carrying out exploratory expeditions in potential deep-sea sites using advanced robotics. Some of these expeditions have removed several tons of nodules. Much of this activity is concentrated in the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Pacific, where the ISA has granted 17 exploratory contracts. The companies involved are working hard to convince politicians and the public of the potential benefits of deep-sea mining, and downplaying the threats it poses to the ocean and those who depend upon it.

But opposition to deep-sea mining – from governments, scientists, Indigenous groups, coastal communities, business, the financial sector, and many civil society organizations – is growing. Opponents say the impacts are poorly understood and the risks unacceptable, and that investment should instead focus on alternatives for a just green transition. Many are also asking serious questions about the effectiveness of the ISA, the body that is mandated to protect the deep sea in the international areas of the ocean for the benefit of humankind.

There is growing support for a moratorium (official pause) on deep-sea mining to allow time to gather more scientific information on deep-sea ecosystems; to ensure that operations would cause no environmental damage; and to prevent work from proceeding without the necessary governance structures and social license.

This cause is backed by many leading scientific and public figures, including Sir David Attenborough, who says:

“The rush to mine this pristine and unexplored environment risks creating terrible impacts that cannot be reversed. We need to be guided by science when faced with decisions of such great environmental consequence.”

Some companies and governments claim that we need to mine metals from the deep to enable us to shift to cleaner energy technologies. But this isn’t true. 

A 2016 report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures concluded that even under the most ambitious scenario – a 100% renewable energy economy globally by 2050 – needs can be met without mining the deep. More recently, a 2022 report by SINTEF presented models showing that demand for critical minerals can be reduced by 58% by 2050 with new technology, circular economy strategies, and increased recycling. This eliminates the need to open the deep seabed to destructive mining. In June 2023, a Statement by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) concluded that claims that deep-sea mining is essential for the clean energy transition are “misleading” and that deep-sea mining “lacks the mitigation and remedial measures available to terrestrial mining”. EASAC supports a moratorium until ecological consequences can be properly understood, measured and controlled. As well as concerns about deep-sea mining’s potential environmental harm and doubts over its necessity, experts are now questioning whether deep-sea mining is financially or technically viable. They point to the huge challenges, risks and costs involved in operating complex machinery in such a hostile environment. There are almost unlimited uncertainties, and companies, investors, and even the ISA itself could be held liable for unforeseen damage and disruption.

Rather than investing large sums of public and private sector money to extract metals from the deep ocean, we should be concentrating on reforming terrestrial mining practices, choosing materials with the least environmental impact, developing technology and systems for reducing the use of raw materials, improving recycling, and accelerating the transition to a more circular economy.

This view is in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which call for both ocean conservation (SDG 14) and sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12).

WHAT ARE OUR PRIORITIES?

The DSCC Deep-Sea Mining Campaign is calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. We want the process of issuing exploration and exploitation contracts and the adoption of any regulations to be paused unless or until:

  • The environmental, social and economic risks are comprehensively understood.
  • It can be clearly demonstrated that deep-sea mining can be managed in a way that ensures the effective protection of the marine environment and prevents biodiversity loss, habitat degradation, and species extinctions.
    Where relevant, there is a framework to ensure informed consent from Indigenous peoples and communities that might be affected.
  • Alternative sources of the metals have been fully explored, along with the potential to meet demand through economies becoming more circular and resource-efficient.
  • Wider public consultations have been carried out and there is evidence of clear public support for deep-sea mining.
  • The ISA has been reformed to ensure that its decisions are transparent, accountable, inclusive, equitable and environmentally responsible.