Deep Sea Mining: Balancing Corporate Interests and Regulating the Ocean Floor
To meet the rising demand for the minerals needed for batteries in electric vehicles, manufacturers have turned to polymetallic nodules on the ocean floor. Mining these minerals, however, has adverse effects on the environment and ocean floor ecosystems. The laws and agencies in charge of regulating these upcoming mining operations are yielding to the demands of private corporations, who, with the help of the International Seabed Authority, are monopolising areas of the ocean floor with high concentrations of nodules to start lucrative mining projects.
Two and a half miles beneath the ocean's surface, the ocean floor is dotted with small, fist-sized rocks called polymetallic nodules. These nodules, which were formed over millions of years and have largely remained untouched, are now at the centre of the electric vehicle future, and their looming extraction promises investors billions. Due to their high concentrations of essential metals needed to make batteries, such as manganese, cobalt and nickel, these nodules could be the key to propelling the new electric vehicle economy.
The future of cars seems destined to be electric. Already, major car manufacturers have laid out plans to release new lines of affordable hybrid and electric vehicles. Due to their batteries, however, electric cars require at least six times the amount of specific minerals as their gas-powered counterparts. It is no surprise that with a sharp rise in demand, companies are turning to the ocean floor for resources.
However, there is an inherent environmental paradox to seabed mining operations aiming to extract nodules. While electric vehicles are central to future plans to curb fossil fuel emissions, environmentalists have already expressed concern that deep-sea mining could have a disproportionate impact on ocean-floor ecosystems, further damaging the environment. When extracting nodules, machines release plumes of sediment and discharge metals into the water, disrupting the ocean floor habitat and potentially endangering wildlife. Scientists know more about the surface of the moon than they know about the ocean floor. Thus, environmentalists are concerned about the potential unknown consequences of disrupting the ocean floor ecosystem.
Mining these minerals above water is not necessarily better for the environment–nor is it necessarily more ethical. Lithium mines in Nevada, for example, have drawn criticism from environmental activists as well as Native American tribes and local ranchers for their anticipated exorbitant use of groundwater and for the risk of contamination of local water sources. In 2019, Apple and Google made headlines after being named in a lawsuit that alleged the use of child labour in Congolese cobalt mines. Conversely, mining conducted on the ocean floor will not directly put human settlements at risk, and will not rely on the exploitative and often life-threatening labour practices of mining on land.
As of now, the international waters, where most nodules can be found, have been left untouched. However, invested companies and organisations are gearing up to prepare for industrial-scale mining operations; some are expected to start as soon as 2024. These impending large-scale mining operations raise certain regulatory questions over who has the rights to extract resources in international waters and which bodies are responsible for determining how profits are regulated and distributed.
In 1994, the United Nations implemented the Convention on the Laws of the Sea. According to the convention, the territorial waters of each sovereign nation can extend 12 nautical miles at most from the respective national coastline. Additionally, a nation can create an ‘exclusive economic zone,’ which entitles the nation in question to use ocean that extends 200 nautical miles from the coastline for economic purposes. Beyond these designated zones, the convention established a new legal regime, under the regulation of a Jamaican-based UN body known as the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The ISA has already mandated that 40 percent of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, the expected location of most mining operations, remain completely untouched. According to international law, in addition to protecting ecosystems on the ocean floor, the ISA is charged with protecting the interests of developing countries so that these countries can fairly compete with wealthy countries for resources. Article 137 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states the following:
1. No State shall claim or exercise sovereignty or sovereign rights over
any part of the Area or its resources, nor shall any State or natural or juridical
person appropriate any part thereof. No such claim or exercise of sovereignty
or sovereign rights nor such appropriation shall be recognised.
2. All rights in the resources of the Area are vested in mankind as a
whole, on whose behalf the Authority shall act. These resources are not
subject to alienation. The minerals recovered from the Area, however, may
only be alienated in accordance with this Part and the rules, regulations and
procedures of the Authority.
The focus on ‘mankind’ means that the ISA is charged with ensuring resources on the ocean floor are not monopolised by wealthy international powers.
In practice, this mandate is proving ineffective. Evidence suggests that the International Seabed authority may have ‘looked the other way’ in favour of the lucrative promises of mining companies. While wealthier states, such as India, South Korea, China and France have already begun exploring the ocean floor to find lucrative mining locations, the ISA, in accordance with the Law of the Sea, is tasked with preserving certain locations for countries with fewer resources. New York Times reporter Eric Lipton recently revealed that there had been a correspondence beginning in 2007 between the ISA and the Metals Company, a Vancouver-based mining company, in which the ISA released critical information about the location of nodule seabed resources intended for developing countries. Metals Company has chosen two Pacific island nations, Naru and Tonga, as sponsors. However, Lipton found this choice suspicious. While the Metals Company would not reveal the terms of the sponsorship agreement with island nations, a Tongan official revealed to the New York Times that the country would receive only $2 per ton of mined materials. This would amount to less than 0.5 percent of profits.
The financial promises of these companies are internationally significant. The Metals Company claims the ability to power over 280 million electric vehicles by mining nodules. For reference, there are only roughly 290 million registered cars in use in the United States as of 2020, and roughly 33 million in the United Kingdom. The Metals Company estimates that it will earn $35 billion during the proposed 25-year mining operation. As of now, there are already 17 exploration contracts between the ISA and mining companies.
While deep-sea mining could hold promises for a greener future, it also poses contradictions. Mining nodules would emit plumes of sediment and waste into ocean floor habitats, and in the process risks endangering the ocean’s biodiversity, while other risks remain unknown. On a social and international level, the practices of mining corporations indicate that economic incentives are being prioritised over the development of less affluent nations. While the ISA has taken steps to preserve certain areas of the ocean floor for environmental concerns, it has, to some extent, side-lined its responsibilities to developing nations.