This opinion piece, originally published in TIME magazine, was written by Sylvia Earle, who served as Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and founded the Deep Ocean Exploration and Research group, and Daniel Kammen, UC Berkeley Professor of Energy and Resources and of public order.
Rarely do we have the opportunity to stop an environmental crisis before it begins. This is one of those occasions. The mining industry is on the verge of digging up the deep ocean and creating a new environmental catastrophe with irreversible consequences for our ocean and climate. We urgently need a moratorium on deep-sea mining to carefully assess the full impact before a new crisis arises.
Deep-sea mining would cause enormous damage. Massive machines digging, dredging and sucking up the seafloor would create huge clouds of sediment deep in the ocean, driven by currents and suffocating marine life, including species yet to be discovered. Surface-level processing vessels would dump tailings — the waste matter left behind after the target mineral is extracted from the ore — back into the ocean, killing plants and animals as they drift through the water column, and releasing acidic and toxic sediments harmful to fish and others dangerous are those who consume it. This process would disrupt the ocean’s vast natural carbon capture and sequestration system, releasing greenhouse gases from the seafloor and accelerating climate change.
The reason for this tremendous destruction is simple – to allow some mining companies to make a profit. But this motif is hidden behind a clever greenwashing campaign.
Mining companies’ justification for deep-sea mining is based on a big lie – that we need deep-sea minerals for electric car batteries and the green energy transition. We are not. New longer-lasting automotive batteries that do not require deep-sea minerals are becoming available, including batteries based on graphene-aluminum-ion, lithium-iron-phosphate, flux iron, and solid-state technologies. We also have the opportunity to extract battery materials such as lithium and cobalt directly from seawater, cheaply and without impact. More importantly, a circular economy that prioritizes the reduction, reuse, and recycling of critical minerals can drive the clean energy transition without deep-sea mining — and at a lower cost. Car battery recycling is already a fast growing industry. Perhaps the best proof that deep-sea mining is unnecessary is the strong message from the electric vehicle industry: Forward-thinking manufacturers like BMW, Volvo, Volkswagen, Renault and Rivian support the moratorium.
Through their powerful influence over a little-known, secretive organization in Jamaica, the International Seabed Authority, mining companies are rapidly accelerating their efforts to begin deep-sea mining. This autonomous organization has been tasked with overseeing the world’s deep sea resources “for the benefit of humanity at large.” But it has become a classic case of the fox guarding the chicken coop. Much of the ISA’s operations are conducted behind closed doors and involve shady dealings with select mining companies. Through opaque processes, the rights to the world’s deep sea resources are being auctioned off in favor of a few mining companies, with little regard for the rights of the rest of the world.
Deep sea mining is not a distant threat – it is a clear and present danger. The ISA has already secured mining exploration contracts covering an incredible 1 million square kilometers (400,000 square miles) of the Pacific Ocean and is preparing to issue licenses to begin large-scale mining as early as July 2023. The ISA knows the resistance to deep sea mining is increasing as more people become aware of the threat and is now speeding up the permitting process. On September 7th, the ISA approved the mining of 7.2 million pounds of polymetallic nodules in a “collector test”. This operation is now underway.
Urgent US action is critical to halting deep-sea mining. We call on President Biden, supported by Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry, to express his support for the moratorium at the upcoming COP27 climate conference and to use his administration’s resources to halt this needless destruction.
The United Nations should also take action. It should protect the ocean and its resources for all of humanity and not allow it to be sacrificed for the benefit of a few. We cannot allow the ISA as it is currently run to rule the fate of the world’s last global commons: the deep sea. The UN and its Secretary-General António Guterres should publicly support the moratorium and take action to bring the breakaway ISA back into line with UN values