Deep-Sea Mining in Tonga, Nauru and Kiribati

Deep Sea Mining – Not the silver bullet we are searching for 

By Peter Boldt, PPP Multimedia Coordinator. Peter Boldt holds a Masters degree in International Development Studies and has worked in international research and projects relating to mining, corporate accountability and sustainable development.

The transition to a prosperous green future is possible. Large multilateral institutions, grassroots community organizations, political parties, and cutting-edge thinktanks among others have begun to take strong actions in the fight against climate change. The momentum to adopt renewable sources of energy has never been stronger, despite facing considerable pushback from an array of polluting and extractive industries. Mechanisms such as carbon markets, regulatory bodies, and watchdog organizations play a critical role in mitigating carbon emissions, as do innovations in green technologies ranging from highly efficient electric vehicles to sophisticated solar power plants that use sea water reservoirs to provide around the clock electricity. However, this dramatic shift has significantly increased demand for energy storage solutions which require production of vast amounts of metals and minerals such as lithium, cobalt, and manganese.

 The Patania II used to collect polymetallic nodules from the seafloor in the Clarion Clipperton Zone. Image: DEME Group

This unprecedented new demand has ushered in a boom for deep-sea mining (DSM), a once thought fringe high-risk venture which has now turned into a lucrative opportunity for transnational corporations. DSM involves harvesting metallic nodules from the sea floor at depths sometimes greater than three kilometers. Many of these mineral concentrations are located in what is known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a large area in the Eastern Pacific covering more than 4.5 million square kilometers. This area is regulated by an intergovernmental body known as the International Seabed Authority (ISA). This body is responsible for granting exploration contracts for DSM activities outside Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of respective countries. Thus far, South Pacific nations that have sponsored exploration initiatives both within their own EEZs and in the CCZ are Nauru, Cook Islands, Kiribati, and Tonga.

The extractive process is costly and extremely challenging from a technological perspective, given the great depths at which that machinery must operate and the remoteness of prospecting sites. Since it is a relatively new process, little technological progress has been made and detailed methods that corporations intend to use are not disclosed. This lack of transparency coupled with significant knowledge gaps of ecosystems at such remote depths has the potential to cause irreversible damage to fragile abyssal organisms and may trigger unprecedented chain reactions in already compromised ecosystems. The removal of nodules which serve as habitats, the creation of sediment plumes, and the discharge of waste, chemicals, and tailings has the potential to greatly disturb an area of the earth that we know very little about. In addition, the removal and disturbance of these fragile habitats is permanent. Nodules take millions of years to form and would guarantee a significant loss of biodiversity.

Polymetallic nodule with a shark tooth, recovered from 5000 meters below the Pacific. Image: Velizar Gordeev

Deep-sea mining has been lauded as a worthwhile economic opportunity, particularly for Small-Island Developing States (SIDS) whose economies rely heavily on tourism. In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many national governments are struggling to provide employment and have implemented austerity measures to soften economic shocks. Desperation has intensified the pressure to grant DSM licenses as transnational corporations seek to take advantage of the uncertain economic climate to push their agendas. 

The extraction of minerals, however, has very rarely led to sustainable development, particularly in the global south. In fact, extractive operations have often generated divisions in many communities and led to conflict over control of territories and resources. Economists have also long questioned whether natural resource extraction is in fact a path to equitable and long-lasting development. Land-based mines have often caused more harm than good and have resulted in irreversible damage to the surrounding environment and social fabric of communities.

 Tuna migrations are particularly vulnerable to changes in the deep-sea ecosystem. Credit: A. Pavel

The connection between the ocean and Pacific Peoples goes beyond economic dependence. As with Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia, Pacific Peoples view themselves as custodians, not owners, of the ocean and its resources. This relationship links to traditional Indigenous understandings and the concept of ensuring that resources are protected and accessible for future generations. Additionally, Pacific Peoples understand the interconnected nature of the ocean, and how it serves as a network to reefs, and other shallow waters. Understandably, many members of civil society and traditional leaders have spoken out against DSM, largely out of concern for the health of their protected waters. 

Canada is home to many mining companies, some of which specialize in deep-sea mining. However, Canada’s own Fisheries Act (2019) prevents any DSM exploration within Canadian borders since it could potentially release harmful substances in waters frequented by fish. In light of this, Canadian companies have set their sights internationally, often targeting the resource rich waters of countries that struggle economically, such as Papua New Guinea. For example, the Canadian company Nautilus Minerals Inc. which was the first venture to secure a license for DSM, failed and declared bankruptcy within a decade of beginning operations. This particular project, titled Solwara 1 DSM, disregarded community perspectives and inconsistencies were found in relation to their environmental impact assessments (EIAs). Canadian mining companies often operate with impunity abroad, and ignore the guidelines that are provided to them, which highlight the need for proper consultations and rigorously researched EIAs. 

 Pictured is Jonathan Mesulam, a leader and advocate of local communities, urging the PNG government to cancel Nautilus Minerals’ deep-sea mining licences. Image credit URL 

To date, the largest players eying South Pacific waters are:

  1. DeepGreen Metals, a private company based in Vancouver. (https://deep.green/) It currently holds a 15-year license to explore 74,830 square kilometres of the CCZ.
  2. Global Sea Mineral Resources, a Belgian subsidiary of the Deme Group. (https://www.deme-gsr.com/) It too holds a 15-year exploration license in the CCZ. 3
  3. The Cook Islands has expressed the strongest political interest in DSM. They also have significant amounts of nodules within their EEZ and have granted DSM licenses.

Overall, there has been little concern or attention given to the potential social and cultural impacts of DSM. Just as terrestrial mining has done for decades, the focus of transnationals has largely been placed on mitigating environmental effects or ‘greenwashing’, which is the practice of misleading investors and the public into buying into their narrative of being environmentally mindful. In order for social and cultural perspectives to be truly respected and considered, transnationals must go far beyond individual consultations and high-level closed-door business meetings. DSM transnationals must engage with all levels of society, and meaningfully explore the social and cultural implications DSM may have. This can only be achieved through extensive dialogue and genuine engagement, where community stakeholders are treated as equal participants in the process. 

For these conditions to be met, a moratorium on all DSM activities is urgently required, given the uncertainties surrounding environmental impacts and the lack of social or cultural impact assessments. MiningWatch Canada, along with other partners, published an extensive report in May 2020 which you can find here. It calls for a precautionary pause on the issuance of new DSM exploration contracts until further studies are conducted and DSM impacts are better understood.

Proponents argue that DSM will provide all the necessary materials to transition to clean energy; they champion DSM almost as the ‘extractions to end all extractions.’ The problem is no one knows for certain the environmental impacts DSM might cause, particularly because it has never been tried at a large scale and is for the most part an experimental process. The urgent need to innovate in the face of climate impacts is critical, but it should never disregard or come at the cost of compromising environmental, social, and cultural resources.

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