Diving for copper?

The decision to kickstart ocean floor mining may have been postponed for at least another year, but as the global debate heats up, Australia could be on the front line, says Steve Freeth.

At the end of July this year, a once-obscure United Nations agency called the International Seabed Authority (ISA), based in Jamaica since 1994, decided to rule out any immediate permission for ocean mining, while still allowing the possibility that it could begin some time in the next couple of years. It was a compromise that had some calling it a ‘road map’ to deep-sea mining while its opponents claimed it as a victory for an outright ban. It’s unlikely to satisfy both sides of the acrimonious debate for long.

ISA is made up of 167 member countries, including Australia and the European Union, and, given the urgent global spotlight on the authority’s deliberations these days, a delegation from the United States – even though they are not formal members. Charged with developing rules for how international seabed mining could or should operate, ISA was expected to finalise regulations midyear, until member countries like Costa Rica, Chile, Germany and France convinced others that no permit should be granted until a framework is agreed to.

Needless to say, a lot is at stake. The supporters of industrial-scale seabed mining to extract metals and minerals like copper, gold, cobalt, silver, nickel, zinc and manganese – some call it ‘experimental mining’ – say that it could ultimately be worth billions of dollars as world decarbonisation pushes demand for so-called ‘green metals’ to unknown levels. In the sights of underwater miners are potato-sized rocks called ‘polymetallic nodules’ on the ocean’s floor, at depths of four to six kilometres – but there are other targets too, including sulphide deposits associated with hydrothermal vents and manganese crusts.

Initially, one of the most important regions identified for sea floor mining has been the so-called Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii, where the concentration of metals appears to be highest. The seas around Papua New Guinea, on Australia’s doorstep, have also been identified as possible sites. Nauru partnered with Canadian seabed miner The Metals Company (TMC) to explore the CCZ in what they’re calling ‘The world’s largest estimated undeveloped source of critical battery metals,’ and both have been pushing ISA to start granting mining permits, while also lobbying for global support.

‘It is now a question of when – rather than if – commercial-scale nodule collection will begin,’ Gerard Barron, the Australian Chairman and CEO of TMC, said in a media release after the most recent ISA ruling, adding he applauded ISA’s ‘road map towards adopting final rules, regulations and procedures to allow for the exploitation of sea floor resources, in a major step toward regulatory certainty’.

It wasn’t, however, how the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) – a global organisation with more than 100 groups as members, including the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Marine Conservation Society – saw it. DSCC, who says that fighting seabed mining is a major priority, said in a media release that the ISA meeting reflected ‘deep-sea mining negotiations in which no mining code was agreed or adopted in a fresh blow to prospective deep-sea mining companies’.

Oceans apart

Sea floor mining now looks like it’s shaping up as a significant geopolitical conflict, with countries like Norway, China, Russia, the Cook Islands, Tonga and Kiribati in support, versus a growing list of countries, major corporations and non-government organisations calling for either moratoriums until more is known about the impact of sea floor mining on oceans, or outright bans. In fact, at the end of the last ISA session, nearly two dozen nations – including some of Australia’s closest neighbours (New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa) – had formally declared for some form of pause, with global companies like BMW, Samsung, Google, Volkswagen and Volvo, and a global coalition of seafood groups, also voicing some form of opposition.

Even Australia’s Andrew Forrest AO, former Chief Executive of Fortescue Metals, said late last year that his charitable foundation, Minderoo Foundation, is in favour of a pause on seabed mining until there’s sufficient evidence that damage to ocean environments can be prevented – the first time a prominent mining executive has spoken out against the issue.

While the few declared companies officially on board to date say that sea floor mining can be undertaken in environmentally sound ways, citing that it involves no drilling or digging – TMC is planning on using a machine to suck the nuggets from the sea floor and transport them to a surface ship by pipeline – the body of scientific research raising concerns is already large and growing. Critics point out that the ISA remit covers 40 per cent of the Earth. With much of it unexplored, mapped or researched, it’s suggested that any mining will have impacts that could permanently damage ocean environments, pointing to sediment plumes, noise and pollution, and possible irreplaceable habitat and marine life destruction. In fact, a Japanese study of sites following the country’s first successful extraction of cobalt crusts from deep-sea mountains in 2020 did confirm a negative impact from the work.

A spate of other studies indicating harm – including one published in Current Biology in May of this year describing the biodiversity of life in the CCZ – has only hardened attitudes. ‘We are on the side of the ocean,’ Gina Guillén-Grillo, Costa Rica’s representative to ISA, was reported in the media as saying. ‘We know there is not enough science. To start right now would be a disaster.’

Down Under

A number of Australian Government departments are represented at ISA, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water; and the Attorney-General’s Department. While Australia has not joined the group of nations publicly declaring for some sort of pause, it did register a statement at ISA’s recent meeting that repeated earlier calls for ‘clear, robust and effective regulations, including strong protections for the marine environment, in place before any application for a mining permit for the international seabed is considered or provisionally approved’.

ISA has entered into 22 exploration contracts with countries like India, China and Korea, as well as mining companies (no Australian companies have applied to date) – all with polymetallic nodules as the predominant target. Australia’s top science organisation, CSIRO, is now involved with the TMC project, and is leading a consortium of organisations that includes Griffith University, University of the Sunshine Coast and Museums Australia ‘to develop an integrated ecosystem assessment and ecosystem-based management framework’ that is likely to be used by ISA to review any TMC proposal to mine. CSIRO makes it clear that it is ‘not a proponent for deep-sea mining activity’, and says its published findings next year will be ‘defensible, adaptive and scientifically rigorous’.

Whatever the outcome of those studies, the discussions at ISA look set to become more fraught. Both TMC and Nauru have said the lack of ISA-endorsed rules means they are free to apply for a licence to mine, but how ISA will react to that possibility is unknown given how far apart many representative countries now are on the issue, or how unclear the procedural rules for decisions now appear to be. What is certain is that the issue is not about to go away any time soon. 

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