How Special Interests Are About to Ravage the Ocean's Last Sanctuary
The seabed is one of the Earth's last remaining unknowns. We have explored less than 1% of the entire seabed surface and mapped only about 0.05 percent in detail, yet the biodiversity in the depths of our ocean is astounding. Scientists believe that as many as 100 million species may live down there - more than in all other environments combined.
However, recently, human activity has thrown marine ecosystems out of balance. In 2018, the world was shocked by the high levels of plastic pollution discovered at the deepest point of the ocean. That same year, the word came out that fishing nations are considering large-scale deep-sea fishing operations in the ocean's twilight zone.
And now, ocean depths face the most significant threat yet - the development of deep-sea mining.
What Is Deep Sea Mining (DSM)?
Volcanic and tectonic activity on the ocean floor leads to the creation of various mineral deposits. Many of them contain valuable metals - gold, cobalt, zinc, and others. That is the reason the mining industry has been dreaming about tapping into this resource ever since the 19th century.
After decades of deep-sea mining being just a distant possibility, the combination of advanced technology and the market's craving for electronic goods made DSM potentially viable in the present. The Economist had even enthusiastically dubbed DSM "the new gold rush."
How International Seabed Authority Came To Be
Because of DSM’s potential damage to deep-sea habitats, and also its capability to aggravate the economic inequality between countries, the United Nations established a separate body to regulate DSM activities - the International Seabed Authority (ISA).
ISA's mission is to "regulate deep seabed mining." Their main job is to review and authorize licenses for exploration and mining permits, ensuring that they are in tune with the UN's sustainable development goals. The ISA states that there is a "special emphasis to ensuring that the marine environment is protected from any harmful effects which may arise from mining activities."
Or at least, that's how it should be.
The trouble is that since its founding in Jamaica in 1994, ISA has been much more proactive in helping the mining industry gain a foothold on the international seafloor than in protecting that same seafloor from DSM's potentially devastating activities.
ISA's Track Record
Although the ISA officially states that environmental protection is a top priority, they have compromised this image through many controversial decisions, actions, and statements.
Here are a few examples.
ISA has never denied issuing a mining lease
So far, ISA has issued 29 exploration leases for deep-sea mining to sponsoring countries. After that, the countries go on to hire corporate contractors. According to their Secretary-General's own statement, not a single application has ever been turned down by the Legal and Technical Commission, the organ of the ISA with a crucial role in issuing mining leases.
ISA lacks complete regulations on environmental protection
Despite all the sweet talk, the fact is that the ISA doesn't know how to protect the international seabed. Specific environmental standards are still to be determined. Yet, there is increasing pressure from the mining industry and pro-mining countries to get on with it.
At the ISA Council annual meeting in 2018, Germany's delegate made a statement that paints a clearer picture:
"The field of environmental regulation needs significant further development. Firstly and above all, there remains a lack of specific environmental requirements as part of the regulations. Currently the environmental impact assessment requirements are limited to a mere form to be filled out by the contractor with neither quantitative nor normative provisions."
However, the lack of knowledge on how to protect the seafloor doesn't stop the ISA from issuing the mining leases.
Ecology, biology, and conservation are massively underrepresented in ISA's Legal and Technical Commission
When ISA states that it has many scientists on board, one would think that a decent number of them are marine biologists and oceanographers.
Sadly, that is not the case.
The majority of the Commission members are geologists, technologists, and law practitioners, and many of them are professionally involved with deep-sea exploration and mining, or other fields of the extraction industry.
Piotr Nowak, the director of the Department of Geology and Geological Concessions of Polish Ministry of Environment, is a curious case. He is a mechanical engineer with an MBA degree and is openly interested in the oil industry. Just before assuming his government position, Nowak had served as a country manager of Celtique Energie Petroleum LTD - a now-defunct UK-based, shale-oriented oil and gas company with documented disregard for the environment.
Interestingly, unlike many of his colleagues, his resume is nowhere to be found on the ISA’s website.
ISA often openly lets industry run the show
According to Greenpeace, corporate representatives have begun speaking on behalf of government delegations at ISA meetings. They have even prepared and funded applications for exploration contracts; the ISA commission never objected.
ISA freely allows the mining companies to push their view of environmental protection in their workshops and other events - with no independent assessment, let alone critique. At a three-day ISA workshop in Warsaw in 2018, the sole environment-related talk was given by a DSM company called DeepGreen. There was no pro-conservation voice present to challenge their perspective and start a much-needed debate.
ISA's deliberations of mining rights mostly remain confidential
LTC reviews mining applications, drafts regulations, and ensures mining companies comply with environmental rules. However, the LTC does not disclose the results of mining companies' research and environmental impact assessments. The information is withheld from the scientific and general public, as well as from the ISA’s very own council.
"You've got 30 people making decisions about half the planet behind closed doors," an undisclosed observer environmental group's representative said to GreenBiz portal.
ISA has a tense relationship with the observer NGOs
To ensure some balance, 30 NGOs, including major pro-conservation organizations like Greenpeace, have been given observer status in the ISA. Surely, an entirely pro-business entity would probably seek to get rid of them. The only issue is that the ISA should be an objective regulatory body that tries to impose balance instead of taking sides.
Last year, the ISA's Secretary General Michael W. Lodge proposed new restrictive guidelines for observer status of non-governmental organizations. They seem to be based on similar guidelines in the International Maritime Organization (IMO), heavily criticized by Transparency International.
The NGOs expressed fear that the new guidelines would exclude almost all NGOs currently in observer status.
ISA is insincere about commercial vs. scientific seafloor exploration
The ISA equates commercial seabed exploration with independent scientific exploration and praises the mining industry's contribution to scientific knowledge about the seafloor.
While doing that, the ISA casually skips the fact that, while scientific missions gather knowledge for the common good, mining companies do it with intent to exploit the seafloor for their own gain.
ISA finds loopholes to downplay the significance of international bodies that try to protect important habitats
The most infamous example is the Lost City license case.
Lost City is a hydrothermal vent field with amazing hydrocarbon rock formations. Besides its looks and unique fauna, Lost City is significant because it may hold precious insights into the beginning of life. In extreme underwater conditions, simple hydrocarbons such as methane are created abiotically - without the involvement of living beings. Scientists believe that the process is governed by the same mechanisms that led to the creation of first life-building molecules on Earth. No other similar hydrothermal field has been discovered to this date.
Even though Lost City is a locality of enormous scientific interest, the ISA Commission gave Poland a license to explore the mining potential of the site. As with other licenses, the ISA did not consult any independent scientific institutions, and subsequent scientific pleas to stop the operation were fruitless.
To contradict the Greenpeace report that underlined the importance of Lost City under international treaties, the ISA issued a public statement which says the Lost City's status of Biologically Significant Area (EBSA) under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is "of no relevance" since the seabed is beyond the scope of CBD, that the EBSAs are mere "descriptions (...) of certain marine areas", and that UNESCO World Heritage Convention applies "only to areas within national jurisdictions."
Beyond the Race To Exploit the Deep Sea
Although Michael W. Lodge has actively criticized concerned conservationists over the years, who could blame them for assuming the worst of a green-washed mining industry?
Impact and accountability remain controversial issues in the mining sector. For an obvious example, we can look at the Paris agreement - while major mining companies did sign it, they have also largely failed to act on it. Other controversies - from environmental impact to violating human rights continue to mount throughout the world.
At the time when deep-sea mining was at its conceptual infancy, there was no broad awareness of the climate crisis or its effects on the ocean. The environmental and social consequences of the market-driven economy hadn't yet surfaced.
To address the damage and find balance, experts have developed alternative economic concepts - such as the circular economy - that fit the needs of sustainable development far better than the linear economy. Now, we have innovative technologies to recycle resources and energy from the endless mountains of waste that consumer societies produce. Also, our awareness is growing and people are starting to question senseless production – as evidenced in cases of environmentally expensive marketing tricks.
All electronic waste piled up in the wastelands still contains precious metals - the same metals that the industry is now desperate to mine at the expense of the seabed ecosystem, with unknown and possibly grave consequences.
* * *
Nick Ridley, the principal engineer of a top deep-sea mining equipment company - Soil Machine Dynamics - gave a compelling statement to the Economist to illustrate the potential power of deep-sea mining.
He said, "The companies that run these industries will be able to buy whole countries… So the value [of DSM] is almost immeasurable."
Can the world’s seabed be purchased as well? Is there anything that can't be bought? And shouldn’t there be anything more valuable than profit?
These are the essential questions for the International Seabed Authority and other intergovernmental bodies.