It has been said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. With the launch of a new extractive industry, we hardly need to imagine at all.
This summer will see the deadline for completion of a new regulatory framework to govern the next gold rush: mining of the deep seabed. From June, the doors will be opened to a mob of baying mining companies from various nations to start commercial operations, commencing the destruction of this last frontier so that corporations can squeeze new short-term profits from the extraction of non-renewable resources. How strong do you like your déjà vu?
The materials of interest are metals like cobalt, lithium, nickel, silver and gold, to be mined from three main sources: polymetallic nodules (basically lumps of mineral rich rock) that form over millions of years across expansive plains on the seabed; cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts from seamounts; metal sulfides formed around the mouths of hydrothermal vents.
Chomping at the bit
Interest in mining the seabed began in the late 1960s, but a subsequent collapse in metal prices meant that early ambitions were shelved. Now though, companies are chomping at the bit, with the excuse that these metals are required for building sustainable energy and transport infrastructure like wind turbines or electric car batteries. Forget that these companies are set to make tens of billions of dollars a pop from drilling up the seabed – they’re actually selfless heroes of the green transition!
In 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) established a new organisation, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), to administer exploitation of ‘the Area’ – the UNCLOS designation for seabed beyond national jurisdictions – for the ‘common heritage of mankind’.
The ISA is formed of 168 parties to the UNCLOS. Its activity thus far has consisted in negotiating its governing framework and parcelling out potentially lucrative blocks of seabed to mining companies in the form of exploratory licences (effectively reserving those blocks for the contractor). The idea is that when mining begins, the ISA will charge royalties to be distributed among its member states, thus benefiting all. In practice, such royalties will be miniscule relative to the profits accruing to companies mostly based in wealthy Global North countries.
The ISA contains various subsidiary organs, among which is ‘the Enterprise,’ which is intended to carry out its own mining to directly benefit ISA members. In other words, the ISA will not only be regulating private contractors, but also itself.
Protection? What protection?
The ISA is also charged by the UNCLOS with safeguarding deep-sea ecosystems from damage. So, an organisation whose raison d’être is administering deep-sea mining, and which will itself be engaged in mining, is simultaneously supposed to protect these ecosystems from the inevitable impacts of mining. If that sounds like a complete contradiction, it’s because it is.
There’s a growing scientific consensus that mining the seabed is impossible without permanently wrecking the local ecology. It would be a scandalous prospect if only deep-sea ecosystems were more widely known. It’s now being discovered though that they are unique, incredibly delicate systems of potentially great value.
Consider the Clarion-Clipperton Zone – a large expanse of abyssal plain at the bottom of the Eastern Pacific, between Mexico and Hawaii. It’s a hotspot for polymetallic nodules, and the target of most mining interest. Practically every time a submersible is sent down there (around 4,000m) new species are identified, and more is understood about the ecology of these plains and the crucial role that the nodules play within them.
These nodules form hard substrates amidst the muddy sediment, providing attachment sites for xenophyophores – unicellular protists that build elaborate sediment casings. These in turn offer shelter and nesting sites for other organisms, while filtering organic matter from the water into the seafloor habitat. Similar roles are played by bamboo corals and sponges, which may take thousands of years to grow, also mostly attached to nodules. These communities vary in distribution and diversity according to the seabed topography and the availability of nodules.
Organisms in the deep generally live and breed over long timescales, so disturbance can be an existential threat. Study simulations of mining impacts show that the movements of mining vehicles, removal of the nodules and the plumes of sediment that are churned into the water column permanently disrupt the habitat structure. Associated noise pollution could also disturb local whale populations; sperm whales, for instance, dive around 1,000m to hunt squid using sophisticated sonar.
Seamounts and hydrothermal vents are particularly extraordinary. Hydrothermal vents occur at tectonic boundaries where water seeps beneath the Earth’s crust, gets superheated and erupts back out, accumulating mineral solutes along the way. These vents enable life to flourish in the depths totally independent of sunlight, as chemosynthetic bacteria utilise these mineral cocktails to extract energy. From there, whole food webs develop, including myriad worms, crustaceans, corals and sponges, some of which may harbour answers to human problems, for instance the development of new antibiotics.
Most seamounts and vents are small and isolated oases whose wildlife is unique and vulnerable. A good illustration of this is the scaly-foot snail, whose large fleshy foot is covered in scales reinforced with iron. These snails are only found at three hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean (with little dispersal of larvae between them) and can only roam a limited distance from the vent mouths due to the chemical needs of symbiotic bacteria housed in their throats, which provide the snails’ food; thus, their total habitat area is smaller than two football fields. Two of these vents are reserved under mining exploration licences.
The transition to decarbonised economies will assuredly require metals like those found in the deep sea. However, the size of this demand isn’t predestined, but depends on both technological innovation (what kind of car batteries are used? How easy are they to recycle?) and political choices. Simply replacing today’s combustion vehicles with the same number of electric cars would be a failure of vision and, irrespective of deep-sea mining, would cause environmental and humanitarian disasters. We must recalibrate transport systems and urban planning around public or active transport.
Mining advocates may try to tell us that there is no alternative. But allowing these insatiable hyenas to pick the Earth to the bone in pursuit of a fast buck is unnecessary and unacceptable. I’ll take a busy bus, just leave me the scaly-foot snails.
Related: UK economy set to be second-worst in G20 this year – OECD