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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Deep-Sea Mining Rush Sparks Environmental Concerns

  • Deep-sea mining is gaining momentum as countries seek critical minerals for the green transition, but scientists are raising alarms about potential environmental consequences.
  • The International Seabed Authority (ISA), responsible for regulating deep-sea mining, is racing to finalize rules by 2025 but faces internal conflicts and accusations of misconduct.
  • Several countries and major companies are calling for a pause on deep-sea mining until the environmental impacts are better understood and regulations are in place.
Ocean

Over the last year, it has become clear that deep-sea mining for 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. There are huge critical mineral reserves worldwide under the seabed, which have made companies increasingly eager to commence deep-sea mining activities to extract the minerals as demand continues to rise. The push for a global green transition has sent the global demand for minerals, such as nickel, copper, and cobalt sky-high. Onshore mining activities have intensified in recent years to address this demand and several companies are looking to the sea to respond to this demand. However, scientists are concerned about what impact deep-sea mining could have on the environment, such as the potential disruption of marine ecosystems. 

Earlier this year, Norway approved the world’s first deep-sea mineral mining, with the government suggesting that it may be less harmful to the environment than land-based mining. There is an abundance of potato-sized nodules of critical minerals that Norway says are vital for a green transition. However, Norway did not plan to immediately commence mining operations, rather, the government aimed to assess proposals from mining companies on a case-by-case basis for license approval. However, without an international regulatory framework in place to manage deep-sea mining, there were concerns over the potential environmental impact of operations.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N. regulator that oversees deep-sea mining, sees the launch of deep-sea mining activities in the coming years as an inevitability and has been working to develop sectoral regulations. The ISA regulates mining across an area covering 54 percent of the world’s oceans, representing 68 member states as well as the EU, but not the U.S. The ISA aims to produce deep-sea mining regulations by 2025. However, 24 countries have called for a pause on deep-sea mining, supported by several major companies, such as Google, Samsung, and Volvo, due to the lack of comprehension of the impact of such activities. 

The ISA’s secretary general, Michael Lodge, is fighting to get environmental rules finalized that would make deep-sea mining possible in the Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and Mexico. However, his opponent, Leticia Carvalho, believes that it could take several years to write the rules needed to regulate the sector, and no mining applications should be approved during that time. Leadership elections are coming up and whoever takes the reigns of the ISA will have significant power over deep-sea mining, with several countries in favor for economic reasons and several staunchly against the idea for environmental reasons. 

Now, there is a major controversy over the ISA leadership of the world’s seas. There have been recent accusations of trickery, which could undermine the legitimacy of the organization’s coming agenda. It recently came to light that a former senior ISA executive filed a complaint with the UN in May, accusing Lodge and his top deputy of misusing agency funds. Supporters of each of the candidates have accused the other side of attempting to influence the outcome of the election by offering to pay for travel costs for delegates and pay delegations’ past-due membership fees. As countries in arrears are not permitted to vote, this could influence the outcome. 

Last month, the ambassador of Kiribati, a small Pacific Island nation that supports Michael Lodge’s candidacy, asked Carvalho to step down in exchange for a possible high-level staff job at the Seabed Authority. In response to the accusations, Lodge stated, “You have a collation of vague, unsubstantiated, unfounded and anonymous rumors, gossip and hearsay which are demonstrably untrue, lack any foundation of fact or evidence and do not stand up to any objective scrutiny.” 

Last month, Japan announced that it had made a new discovery of over 200 million tonnes 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 Tokyo Island, at depths of about 5,500 meters. The Nippon Foundation and partners hope to start extracting the nodules in 2025, to support Japan’s green energy sector. 

As more countries are looking to commence deep-sea mining operations, following several discoveries of critical mineral deposits in recent years, the ISA must act fast to ensure the sector is adequately regulated. The lack of regulation means that governments and private companies could start mining without the proper rules in place to ensure safety standards are adhered to for environmental preservation. However, with the recent controversy over the ISA leadership elections, the organization must restore trust with its member states while continuing to develop mining regulations in line with previous aims for a mining code. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com 

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