The controversial push to mine the deep sea
The Take looks at the environmental costs of mining the ocean floor.
As wealthy nations try to find new ways to cut their carbon emissions, electric vehicles have been getting a lot of attention. From incentives for electric cars in the US to all-out bans on future gas and petrol cars in the UK and European Union, leaders are pushing their populations away from the gas guzzlers. But electric cars aren’t an environmental silver bullet. Their batteries require specific types of metals, like cobalt and nickel. One potential – and controversial – source for those metals is the deep sea. In this episode, we look at the minerals on the bottom of the ocean floor and the environmental costs of mining them.
In this episode:
- Diva Amon (@DivaAmon), marine biologist
- Daniel Ackerman (@DAckermanNews), independent climate journalist
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Full episode transcript:
This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
Halla Mohieddeen: As wealthy nations consider how to cut their carbon emissions, there’s one solution that’s been getting quite a bit of attention.
Newsreel: It’s out with the old gas guzzlers and in with the new electric vehicles.
Halla Mohieddeen: From incentives for electric cars in the US.
Joe Biden: They are a vision of the future that is now beginning to happen, a future of the automobile industry that is electric.
Halla Mohieddeen: To all out-bans on gas and petrol cars in the UK and EU.
Newsreel: The United Kingdom is all set to put a ban on the sales of new petrol and diesel cars from the year 2030.
Halla Mohieddeen: But electric cars aren’t exactly an environmental silver bullet. In the words of US President Joe Biden.
Joe Biden: And a key part of the electric vehicle, to state the obvious is the battery.
Halla Mohieddeen: In order to make batteries, you need specific types of metals, like cobalt and nickel. And one potential, and controversial, source for those metals is the deep sea. I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.
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Halla Mohieddeen: Today we’re talking to a couple of people who’ve been following the debate over mining the deep sea. Daniel Ackerman is one of them. He’s an independent climate journalist. And he recently reported on deep-sea mining for the podcast How to Save a Planet.
Daniel Ackerman: I’ve been covering deep sea mining for, I guess, three years now. And really just in the last year, the action has really been heating up. So I’ve kind of been almost full time on the deep sea mining beat in recent months.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s because companies interested in deep sea mining are going from a phase of exploration to commercial exploitation.
Daniel Ackerman: There are a number of different geologic formations that we could extract metals from, but really the prize so to speak are polymetallic nodules.
Daniel Ackerman: So depending on who you ask, these nodules are either like treasure waiting to be plucked from the bottom of the ocean or they are the building blocks of a thriving ecosystem that should be left untouched. But less philosophically, they are rocks.
Halla Mohieddeen: Very valuable rocks, as Daniel hinted. In fact, some companies hoping to profit off them say these nodules are like a battery in a rock.
Daniel Ackerman: By the end of this decade, there are predicted to be tens of millions of electric cars on the road. All of those are gonna require batteries full of metal and today with the battery technology that we have, the best batteries, the ones that give you the longest range to drive on a single charge, those include decent amounts of cobalt and nickel. And those two metals are mined on land today, but they’re often associated with really problematic social practices.
Newsreel: Under each of these shelters are deep tunnels dug by hand. They often collapse. At the end of them are deposits of cobalt of which Congo exported nearly $2bn worth in 2019.
Daniel Ackerman: A lot of companies and countries and people who are also environmentalists say we should be considering this potential source of metal from the deep ocean.
Halla Mohieddeen: Right now, most of the exploration is focused on those polymetallic nodules. There are billions of them dotting the ocean floor.
Daniel Ackerman: The word mining often evokes blasting a huge hole in the ground, digging a big open pit deep into the earth. The interesting thing about these polymetallic nodules is that they form right on the surface of the ocean floor. So you wouldn’t be digging deep into the ocean floor, but most of the proposals for actually extracting these polymetallic nodules involve some form of a giant vacuum cleaner.
Halla Mohieddeen: That giant vacuum cleaner would crawl along the sea bed, sucking up the first few centimetres off the ocean floor. Those are the centimetres that include the nodules. And it would send it all up a pipe.
Daniel Ackerman: And we’re talking, this pipe would be like three miles long, cuz the water is really deep. It would send this mixture up a huge pipe to a ship waiting at the surface.
Halla Mohieddeen: That’s where the nodules are separated from the rest of the sediment. And whatever’s left over gets sent back down into the ocean.
Diva Amon: Not only is that mining activity going to cause this huge plume, that’s kind of akin to a dust storm in the deep sea, there’s also gonna be the secondary plume from the pumping of water back into the ocean.
Halla Mohieddeen: That’s Diva Amon. She’s a Caribbean marine biologist focused on the animals and habitats of the deep ocean, and the impact our actions have on them. So naturally, she’s spent quite some time studying the potential effects of deep sea mining.
Diva Amon: There’s going to be changes to water properties. There’s going to be a really huge increase in light pollution. We have to remember the deep sea is a place where there is no sunlight. And so this is gonna be a very big change for many of the animals who live there. And there’s also gonna be a big increase in noise pollution. All of this really is going to result in biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and that could potentially damage many of the ecosystem services that the deep sea provides and that we rely on for a habitable planet.
Halla Mohieddeen: Just talk us through that because this is one of the most remote areas of the planet, but I get the sense that we don’t really know an awful lot about what’s happening in the deep sea. So what are the ecosystems there like and how do they affect the ecosystems that are closer to us on dry land?
Diva Amon: The deep sea is not a place that you and I are going to interact with, we think, on a daily basis. But in fact, we kind of do. It provides about 96% of all the habitable space on earth. So it is enormous.
Halla Mohieddeen: And while it might not be habitable for humans, the deep sea does a lot for us. It helps regulate fisheries, which provide people with food and jobs. It plays its own crucial role in combating climate change: the oceans are a huge carbon sink.
Halla Mohieddeen: The deep sea is also a source of practical inspiration.
Diva Amon: We have found glass sponges in the deep sea. It’s a very common type of sponge in the deep sea, absolutely stunningly beautiful. They’re made of silica, just the most intricate structures. And those structures have actually been used to inspire more efficient fibre optic cables.
Diva Amon: Some scientists are excited about the deep sea’s medical potential.
Diva Amon: One of the most successful treatments for breast cancer currently comes from a shallow water marine sponge. And there are numerous examples like that. And the deep sea hasn’t even really been tapped for that. And so imagine what is down there. For us to discover And we just need to look and have the opportunity to explore and understand and value it before it’s lost to potentially these quite damaging activities.
Halla Mohieddeen: And there’s loads of biodiversity to explore.
Halla Mohieddeen: That includes some animals we could never imagine living on land.
Diva Amon: Everything from, you know, dumbo octopus to blind white yeti crabs, to glowing sharks, to corals that are thousands of years old, bone eating zombie worms. I mean, really the deep sea is just full of life that is weird and wonderful. And there’s a huge amount of it.
Halla Mohieddeen: I heard you mention the dumbo octopus. I saw a tweet at one of those videos that was going round, and it was scientists who were in a ROV that had gone down.
Halla Mohieddeen: And it was this weird, it was almost like a pink octopus with like the big ears. That’s the dumbo octopus.
Diva Amon: Mm-hmm
Halla Mohieddeen: I have watched that video so, so many times it’s the most incredible thing that it looks like a cartoon and that’s an actual animal living in the deep ocean.
Diva Amon: Absolutely. It’s like Dr. Seuss on steroids in the deep sea, but that’s why it’s so wonderful and potentially can hold many of the solutions to some of the greatest challenges that humankind will face in the future. But yes, the dumbo octopus is this octopus that has two sort of flaps on the size of its heads, just like Dumbo, that it uses to swim. And it’s ridiculously adorable.
Halla Mohieddeen: So he’s my favourite. What’s your favourite deep sea animal?
Diva Amon: Oh, I mean, that’s a really hard question. Oh gosh, I absolutely love the blind white yeti crabs. And they live at hydrothermal vents, which are one of the habitats that could be mined in the future. And they have very hairy chests and arms and they use this, hairiness, to basically use the fluid coming out of the hydrothermal vents, these sort of underwater hot springs, and they use those hairs to grow bacteria on them. And then when it gets hungry, it just eats the bacteria off of its hairy chest and arms. So it basically has like arm farms, which, who doesn’t want that.
Halla Mohieddeen: These animals might sound pretty new and different to the average person. But they’re also pretty new to scientists, as well. The vent where these crabs live, for example.
Diva Amon: That was only discovered in 2010. And much of these deep sea habitats, they’re being discovered now or, you know in very recent times, just the last few decades. And yet, so little of it has still been explored. And so it really does make you wonder, you know, what else is waiting out there to be discovered?
Halla Mohieddeen: You’re describing these communities of animals down there, It is pretty incredible. But I imagine if you send a combine harvester down there or something similar, which is gonna rip up the nodules, rip up the sediment, it will rip up these animals as well, won’t it?
Diva Amon: Absolutely. There’s gonna be of course, direct removal and destruction of the sea flow habitats, along with all of the unique fauna that lives there. Ultimately much of it is going to be killed because many of them actually can’t move, right, like corals and sponges. And those that can move may not be able to do so quickly. And again, we’re still struggling to understand these places, from just, you know, answering that basic question of what lives there. So it is still really hard to say what potentially we stand to lose and whether it is worth what we stand to gain from deep seabed mining.
Halla Mohieddeen: And what could be lost might extend further than the ocean floor.
Diva Amon: There was a recent study that came out by colleagues. That showed that in the Clarion Clipperton zone, this area where there is the most mining expiration activity currently, there is no area that would not be subject to noise pollution, on a scale never seen before.
Halla Mohieddeen: This study found that noise from one of those mines could travel about 500km (310.686 miles) underwater. That could affect not just the animals in the deep sea, but others higher up in this Clarion-Clipperton Zone. For those animals, like whales, that use sounds like this to communicate…
Halla Mohieddeen: …that kind of noise pollution could be very disruptive.
Diva Amon: So this is not one mine. This is not a small potential extractive activity. This could potentially change the future of the ocean.
Halla Mohieddeen: You’re one of the authors of a study that looked at what we do and what we don’t know about the deep sea. And it turns out that we know very little. Can you just tell us a little bit about that study?
Diva Amon: So, in early 2022 myself, and a group of 30 co-authors who are either science and policy experts who work on deep seabed mining, we assessed all of the science that exists in regions with these exploration licences.
Halla Mohieddeen: They wanted to see what we know about these regions: how well the sea floor is mapped, how much we know about the animals that live there, that kind of information.
Diva Amon: And what we found was that across all of these areas where mining licences have been granted just 1.1 percent of scientific categories had enough knowledge to enable evidence-based decision making. So if we were to flip that, nearly 99 percent of science is lacking to guide decision making and management of this emerging industry.
Halla Mohieddeen: But an upcoming deadline means authorities may have to make some decisions very soon. More on that after the break.
Halla Mohieddeen: Right now, 31 contracts have been issued for companies to explore deep sea mining. Those contracts are issued by something called the International Seabed Authority, also known as the ISA. It’s an agency associated with the UN. Here’s environmental journalist Daniel again, to explain how it works.
Daniel Ackerman: The international seabed authority has kind of a dual mandate. So first they have to conserve the marine environment. And second, they’re charged with developing and fostering this new industry of deep sea mining.
Halla Mohieddeen: Right now, that means creating a set of rules that will govern the whole industry. And now they have a deadline to make those rules.
Daniel Ackerman: Depending on who you ask, it is either a hard deadline or just total fiction. But, there’s this thing called the two year rule.
Halla Mohieddeen: It’s a clause in the UN’s convention on the law of the sea, and it basically says.
Daniel Ackerman: If a country or a company wants to go out and start mining in international waters, but the ISA has not finalised this rule book, then the contractor would have to give basically two years notice saying, hello, ISA, we would like to start mining in two years. Hurry up and finish the rule book so that we can have something to follow when we do our mining.
Halla Mohieddeen: In 2021, the Pacific Island nation of Nauru, and its corporate partner, a subsidiary of a Canadian firm called the Metals Company, did just that.
Daniel Ackerman: The president of Nauru submitted a letter to the ISA saying we would like to start mining in two years. So please hurry up and finish this rule book that you, the ISA have been working on.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s moved the debate around deep sea mining into a whole new gear. Daniel went to Jamaica to cover those International Seabed Authority meetings in July and August of 2022.
Daniel Ackerman: I don’t know exactly what’s gonna happen, but my sense of things is that there just isn’t enough time to finalise this rule book. You know, like the countries are, are debating, really down at the word level, every single word of this mining code, which ultimately is gonna be hundreds and hundreds of pages long. And, it appears like we could hit the end of this two year deadline next summer where Nauru and the metals company want to start mining, but there’s no rule book in place.
Halla Mohieddeen: That doesn’t necessarily mean that come June of 2023, if there’s no rule book, it’ll be a free-for-all on the ocean floor.
Daniel Ackerman: There’s a lot of legal wrangling over all of this. but a number of international lawyers and environmentalists, basically hold the opinion that the ISA does not have to grant this licence. Even if there’s no rule book, they could basically say, we’re gonna hold off. We’re not gonna allow the metals company and Nauru to start mining.
Halla Mohieddeen: But that means a relatively small group of people, just one part of the International Seabed Authority, would be making a decision about something that could forever change Earth’s oceans. The process for creating this rulebook, though, has a lot more democratic say.
Daniel Ackerman: This mining code is being slowly drafted by consensus of all of the member states of the ISA. So, that’s more than 150 countries are basically going to all agree on the rules for deep sea mining. So, this will eventually be a document that has wide agreement across all of these varied member states.
Halla Mohieddeen: And there’s quite a bit that needs agreement.
Daniel Ackerman: There’s a huge amount of debate on environmental regulations. And, there’s also a pretty significant financial aspect that also needs to be worked out, the so-called financial mechanism. And I think this is kind of a point that often gets lost here is yes, this will be impacting the marine environment. It’s also gonna be impacting the global economy.
Halla Mohieddeen: Part of the reason for that comes down to ownership: who owns those nodules located in international waters?
Daniel Ackerman: Well you and I both own these polymetallic nodules. And in fact, they’re defined in, under the United Nations treaty as the common heritage of humankind. So if a single company wants to go out and mine these international waters, they are responsible for making royalty payments to the ISA, and then the ISA will distribute those royalty payments among all of the member states. And so this is another huge sticking point in the negotiations.
Halla Mohieddeen: As you might guess, different countries have different ideas about who should get how much.
Daniel Ackerman: At a very simple level, they could distribute funding to all of the member countries, just purely based on the population of each country. There’s this question of whether equity should be more of a factor in this. Should poorer countries receive a larger share than wealthier countries. And then there’s also this fascinating issue of the fact that countries right now that rely on terrestrial mining as a big part of their economy, they could be harmed by deep sea mining, right? So at these ISA negotiations, we hear countries like South Africa basically advocating that countries that rely heavily on terrestrial mining, they should receive a larger share of royalties because their economy is gonna take a hit if deep sea metals come on the market and, and lower metals prices coming out of South Africa. So it is a complicated web to negotiate here. And it involves not just the environment, but also, the distribution of funds to 150 plus countries.
Halla Mohieddeen: With that kind of money on the line, deep sea mining could feel inevitable. We asked Daniel if he feels that way.
Daniel Ackerman: If you asked me this question a couple years ago, I would’ve said yes. But one of the big things that was new at the ISA negotiations this past summer, is that suddenly these calls for a moratorium, basically a pause or a delay on commercial scale deep sea mining. Those calls are growing much louder.
Halla Mohieddeen: Several countries have said they’re not ready to give the green light. And Fiji, Palau, Samoa, and Chile have all called for moratoriums. Scientists like Diva are speaking out, too.
Diva Amon: As of now over 650 scientists from over 40 countries have signed this statement calling for a pause to the transition from exploration to exploitation until we know more about the deep sea and how it will be impacted.
Halla Mohieddeen: And are other civil society groups joining you in your call?
Diva Amon: Absolutely. You know, it does feel like there’s this real sort of call for a pause or a moratorium or a recess, whatever we’d like to call it. But essentially more time before mining exploitation begins, it feels like that is sort of gathering momentum.
Halla Mohieddeen: That includes plenty of the usual groups you might expect, like environmental and human rights organisations. It also includes some of the companies that could stand to use those minerals in the first place.
Diva Amon: So we’ve seen BMW, Volvo, Volkswagen, Google, Samsung, Phillips, and a number of other companies saying that they will not use deep sea minerals. We’ve also seen a number of banks come out and say, they’ll be excluding customers who undertake deep seabed mining, you know, Nat West, Credit Suisse, Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland, a number of investment firms. So it really does seem that there is this gathering momentum saying, you know, to move forward with this rapid unrestrained expansion of mining into the deep ocean currently would be deemed to be irresponsible and not in line with sustainable development.
Halla Mohieddeen: Deep sea science is a pretty expensive field. And Diva told me the fact that not many people have had an opportunity to engage with it is one reason the idea of mining the deep sea has gotten as far as it has.
Diva Amon: Growing up, I didn’t really interact with the deep sea. Didn’t know much about it beyond occasionally being out on a boat and staring down into the ocean and wishing I knew what lived down there. The thought that much of the deep ocean could be lost before people have the opportunity to bask in its wonder and majesty. I find that deeply upsetting, and is something that, you know, I’d prefer really didn’t happen.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s the Take. This episode was produced by Negin Owliaei with Ruby Zaman, Chloe K. Li, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Amy Walters, and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is the Take’s sound designer. Tim St. Clair mixed this episode. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou Gad are our engagement producers. And Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio. We’ll be back.
This episode was produced by Negin Owliaei with our host, Halla Mohieddeen. Ruby Zaman fact-checked this episode. Our production team includes Chloe K Li, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei, Amy Walters, and Ruby Zaman. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Tim St. Clair mixed this episode. Our engagement producers are Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad. Al Jazeera’s head of audio is Ney Alvarez.