In a windowless Canary Wharf conference room, dozens of mining executives, bankers and government officials are promised unique insights into how to capitalize on the ‘deep-sea gold rush’.
The hoped-for gold rush lies thousands of miles away at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, where trillions of potato-sized nodules of rare earth elements essential to powering the next generation of electric cars have been discovered 4,000m below the surface.
Mining companies are hoping global rules will be in place as early as July 2023, allowing industrial-scale deep-sea mining to collect the spoils.
However, environmental activists have warned that mining the metals is “hazardous” and “reckless” and will cause “irreversible damage” to little-known ecosystems. By one estimate, 90% of deep-sea species encountered by researchers are new to science.
Greenpeace activist Louisa Casson criticized industry for hosting the conference and banks for considering investing in “dangerous and unnecessary” projects to “make a quick profit”.
“This disruptive new industry wants to disrupt an ecosystem that we’re only just beginning to understand,” she said. “[They are] with the goal of making a quick profit while our oceans and the billions of people who rely on them bear the cost.”
The nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone between Hawaii and Mexico were first discovered by the crew of HMS Challenger in 1875, but only recent developments in underwater robotics have enabled large-scale mining of the metals.
The UN-affiliated body overseeing the controversial new industry has granted licenses to companies to explore the area, but full-scale mining has yet to begin. That could soon change, however, as the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru has triggered a “two-year rule,” giving the International Seabed Authority (ISA) two years to implement regulations for the industry. It set a deadline of July 9, 2023 for the adoption of a roadmap.
“Deep-sea gold rush is a game changer,” read advertisements for the Deep Sea Mining Summit 2022 at the Hilton London Hotel in the capital’s Canary Wharf, for which delegates paid £1,195 for the two-day event this week. “After years of negotiations and false starts, deep-sea mining is on the verge of a breakthrough.
“As we enter an era of mining the deep ocean floor, the world’s most remote environment, mining companies are working to address perceived challenges, and developing island nations are watching with interest. As the demand for base metals and minerals becomes greater than our country can provide, new technological and technical developments are helping to propel this new industry forward.”
Daniel Wilde, economic adviser for oceans at the Commonwealth Secretariat, which represents Nauru and many of the other small island nations interested in seabed mining, told the conference he expected the ISA to agree to a payments scheme that would give mining companies a post-tax profit of 17, 5%
However, he warned audiences that “the two-year deadline seems pretty tight, [and] If it’s not agreed, there are questions about what happens next.”
Ebbe Hartz, a geologist at Aker BP, a Norwegian oil exploration company partly owned by BP, said mining for metals on the seabed could eventually overtake oil drilling. “But the problem will be finding [the metals]and we don’t have a lot of data.”
Hartz said data collection through machine learning is key to the success of seabed mining and would ensure “we don’t have to make all the mistakes we’ve made with hydrocarbons.”
Eleanor Martin, a partner at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, which advises banks on offshore project financing, said global banks are “very eager” to invest in deep-sea mining projects as they forecast the cost of lithium and cobalt used for Batteries needed by electric cars continue to spiral upwards. “To build the number of [electric] We will need cars, we will need a lot more of these metals.”
“Banks are sitting on pots of green money,” she said, referring to money earmarked for projects to tackle the climate crisis. “But they need to know that mining projects are green and sustainable.”
Katherine Reece Thomas, associate professor of law and director of international law at The City, University of London, warned the industry must do more to win public opinion before planning to start depleting the oceans.
“There’s an impossible conflict between those who say we can’t possibly do this and others who say we have to take this stuff to fight climate change on Earth,” she said.
Jessica Battle, who leads WWF’s No Deep Seabed Mining campaign, said: “Deep-sea mining is highly risky and will cause irreversible damage to the ocean, its life and its ability to mitigate climate change. It is irresponsible to invest in such a highly unsustainable industry when we need to reduce our footprint on nature.
“Any short-term incentives on offer are far outweighed by the long-term benefits of a healthy ocean, and that is why WWF and others are calling for a global moratorium on deep-sea mining. Alternative solutions already exist – innovation, recycling and repair can meet the industry’s need for raw materials without opening up the seabed for mining.”
Greenpeace’s Casson said: “There is absolutely no need to mine the deep oceans and cause further damage to our planet. We were pleased to see the biggest players in the electric car and tech sectors, including Microsoft, Google, Volvo, BMW and Samsung, all denouncing the greenwashing of deep-sea mining companies and pledged not to use deep-sea minerals in their products.
“This burgeoning industry should stop before it even starts. We need to move to a circular economy where we waste less and reuse more, rather than trying to destroy one of our planet’s last great wildernesses at the bottom of our oceans in the name of profit.”