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‘Disaster’ deferred: Deep-sea mining talks postponed

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After intense negotiations, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — a United Nations-backed agency with jurisdiction over international waters — has agreed to postpone discussions on commercial deep-sea mining, at least for now. Environmentalists viewed the decision as a hopeful step toward protecting fragile marine ecosystems from companies and countries eager to extract rare minerals from the deep sea. 

“The International Seabed Authority’s decision to postpone final decision on formal deep-sea mining regulations – likely until 2025 – is both encouraging and a moment for pause,” said Conservation International policy expert Lina Barrera. “While it is disappointing that a full moratorium has not been adopted, the current outcome shows that a growing community is committed to ensuring clear, science-backed guidelines are in place should full-scale mining eventually move forward.”

A small nation triggers a big question

The question of whether to allow or ban deep-sea mining was set in motion in 2021, when Nauru, a tiny Pacific island nation, declared its intent to mine a mineral-rich undersea ridge known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Proponents of deep-sea mining argued that meeting the growing demand for electric vehicles requires tapping into new sources for rare minerals — and that the polymetallic nodules found on the ocean floor could provide needed copper, nickel, cobalt, iron and manganese.

Critics, though, say that effort would come with a hefty environmental toll — plundering and degrading parts of the ocean about which we know little. Mining operations release toxic biproduct, dredge up plumes of sediment and bulldoze entire ecosystems. According to some estimates, only 20 percent of the seafloor has been mapped. Scientists argue more time is needed to study the deep sea and increase our understanding of the risks associated with mining the seafloor. 

“Although the long-term impacts of seabed mining remain unclear, all available evidence suggests it would be an unmitigated disaster — for biodiversity, for climate and for human well-being,” Conservation international’s climate lead, Emily Nyrop, wrote in The Hill in March. 

Moreover, it remains unclear whether deep sea mining is even necessary to meet the demand for electric vehicles. A recent study from the International Energy Agency showed that the materials needed to build them are more readily available than ever, even without deep-sea mining.

Governments and companies voice opposition

A steady drumbeat of private-sector opposition to deep-sea mining began in 2021, when Google, BMW, Volvo and Samsung committed to boycotting minerals extracted from the deep sea. Earlier in July, major seafood groups called for a pause on deep-sea mining, citing a new study that modeled tuna migration and its intersection with potential future mining epicenters.

Opposition from governments has mounted, too. Chile, France and Costa Rica led efforts to impose a deep-sea mining moratorium, among more than 20 countries in the assembly who sought to halt or ban mining activities.

While environmental advocates broadly see the postponement as a win, the matter is far from over. ISA talks will resume in 2024, with some notable participants, including China, still strongly in favor of deep-sea mining. In the meantime, the council can consider mining applications. However, in the past the ISA has said those applications should be delayed until a mining code is agreed upon. 

“The Assembly’s decision today reinforces the belief that there is opportunity to ensure future deep-sea development is not rushed and done with science in mind,” Barrera said. “There are too many unanswered questions about the seafloor to move forward.”

Further reading:

Study: Protecting the ocean benefits people and nature

Why a new treaty to protect the high seas is a ‘game-changer’

In the high seas, scientists uncover a ‘vortex of life’

Max Marcovitch is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.