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Environmentalists warn deep-sea mining could cause major damage to unknown ecosystems, yet mining companies argue it is the key to the energy transition
In the depths of the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii, trillions of potato-shaped rocks scattered across the seabed contain minerals such as nickel, cobalt and manganese that are vital for green technologies in the global energy transition.
In this region – the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) – an abundance of the rocks, known as polymetallic nodules, is fuelling debate about the mining of metals needed to produce technology such as batteries for electric vehicles.
Environmentalists say deep-sea mining could cause critical damage to ecosystems that scientists know little about, yet mining companies argue that it is better for the environment than land-based extraction.
More than a dozen nations have sponsored small-scale exploration projects, but commercial mining of international waters is not permitted. That ban will be debated at a UN meeting in Jamaica beginning in July.
Gerard Barron, CEO of The Metals Company, which is leading efforts to scoop up the nodules thousands of metres underwater, said mining the ocean does less damage to nature than extraction in places like the Indonesian rainforest. “Our oceans are full of metals,” Barron said in an interview “They come with a whole host of lower environmental impacts than the land-based alternatives.”
Many scientists and conservationists – and even some countries – disagree and are calling for a pause or moratorium on plans for mining beneath the high seas.
Many experts and activists – ranging from the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, an association of national academies of science in Europe, to more than 100 NGOs – argue that not enough is understood about life in the sunless depths from exotic fish to sea cucumbers to open them up to mining.
“There is no such thing as low-impact deep-sea mining,” said Jonny Hughes, a policy adviser at the Blue Marine Foundation, an environmental charity. “It’s the most destructive idea you could possibly think of when it comes to the deep sea.”
The debate is expected to come to a head in Kingston, Jamaica, at the three-week meeting of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN body responsible for regulating the high seas. Those are areas beyond the jurisdiction of national governments where most deep-sea minerals are found.