Judgement Day for Deep Seabed Mining’s Environmental Impact

3 weeks ago Catherine Early

The environmental impact of deep seabed mining is uncertain, as supporters and opponents go head to head.

Environmental campaigners fear that important wildlife habitat could be irreparably damaged, while proponents argue that it is better for the environment to mine minerals – many of which are needed for green technologies – from the seas than from the land.

Exploratory tests of equipment and processes are planned by several countries and private companies so that the impacts can be better understood. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which regulates the high seas lying 200 miles beyond coastlines, has approved 30 exploration contracts involving 22 countries, and covering more than 1.3 million square kilometres – around 0.7 per cent of the international deep seabed area.

Guidelines and regulations governing deep seabed mining being carried out are still in the process of being finalised. In March this year, the ISA published revised guidelines for exploration activities. These state that any country or company wanting to carry out tests must submit an environmental impact statement (EIS) to its legal and technical team at least one year in advance. The EIS will then be reviewed by ISA’s legal and technical team to judge their “completeness, accuracy and statistical reliability,” according to the guidelines.

However, the Code Project – a coalition of environmental campaigners, scientists, lawyers, and regulatory specialists who reviewed the development of the ISA’s rules for mining – fear that this criteria will not give a clear picture of environmental impacts.

Moreover, since they are guidelines rather than rules, they are non-binding, making it unclear who would know if a contractor undertook harmful activity without having submitted an EIS, or what they could do about it.

Last January, the Indian government published a consultation on its EIS for exploration and technical trials of a machine that will collect “nodules,” which are potato-shaped formations on the ocean floor containing rich concentrations of manganese, copper, cobalt and nickel. These are essential materials for renewable energy technology and batteries.

The test will assess the movement of the collector vehicle and its ability to crush, pump and discharge the waste nodule material within a limited area on the seabed, which is 5,000 metres deep. The collector vehicle would operate over a total distance of 1,000m and collect nodules from a sediment layer down to 15-30cm. Environmental data would be collected before and after the trials and over a period of time to assess the extent of impact, according to the EIS.

The area is estimated to contain more than a billion nodules, all of which form habitat for wildlife, including sea cucumbers, sponges, ray-fanned fishes, starfish, crustaceans and sea anemones and corals. Little is known about the species found in the area and campaigners fear that undiscovered species exist there. This has recently been the case in another area of interest for deep seabed mining, the Clarion-Clipperton zone in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Wildlife living on or near the nodules has evolved to flourish in the cold and darkness of the deep ocean, and could be damaged by noise and light from mining activities, the Indian government says. Mining equipment could remove or degrade habitats, while plumes of sediment created by activity could smother nearby life, they argue. The EIS is therefore essential to ensure that no seabed mining takes place until the protection of the marine environment can be ensured.

“The important thing about nodules is that they are resting on a silty ocean bottom, so they form the only hard rocky substrate on which marine life can anchor itself,” says Andrew Friedman, head of the seabed mining program at the Pew Trust, which leads the Code Project. “When you suck up the nodules, you are collecting habitat.”

The project has flagged up several issues with the Indian EIS. For example, it says that there is a lack of clear plans by the Indian government for monitoring the impact of sediment plumes, which are formed by the dust and debris from a mining vehicle, and could harm marine life on the seafloor and in the water column. The EIS should have included a model that could then be verified during testing, it read.

Overall, it concluded that the EIS contained significant gaps that made it impossible to assess whether the country’s test would cause significant environmental harm, or provide useful information about the effects of future commercial-scale operations.

However, the real concern lies in the process with which the statements are reviewed, and whether that happens at a national level, or at the international level by the ISA. The regulator ensures that use of these areas of the high seas is done for the benefit of all mankind. Yet it has previously taken the position that it is up to national governments to make the final decision on whether exploration activities can take place, Friedman says.

Though the ISA has introduced the requirement for contractors to submit an EIS to its legal and technical team, it is still not clear exactly how this will work, and how final decisions will be made.

“There’s a sufficient lack of clarity on what the ISA’s role and responsibilities are,” Friedman says.

The Code Project wants the ISA to mandate that the assessments provide baseline information through precise and thorough sampling over multiple years. This act would identify the human-caused changes that would likely result from mining; describe efforts to mitigate the risks to species, habitats and ecosystems, and detail methodology for studying the impacts of an activity for its duration. It would also provide data to help predict impacts for future commercial activities.

The Indian EIS is only the second submitted to the ISA for exploratory activities. The Code Project believed that the first, from a Belgian company Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR) wanting to undertake a test of its vehicle in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, was similarly flawed, and that without substantial revisions, these two statements will set “a deeply problematic precedent” for future tests.

For now, technical problems and Covid-19 have delayed GSR’s trial. Whenever it goes ahead, the company plans to take independent scientists on the trial to monitor its activities, with their findings made public, according to a statement on its website.

But Friedman claims that the lack of clarity and loopholes in the process were a “recipe for fragmented governance and unchecked environmental abuses.”

The ISA and GSR declined an invitation to comment for this article. No response was received from requests for information from the Indian Government’s Ministry of Earth Sciences, and industry group the Deep Sea Mining Alliance.