Carbon-intensive transportation and the need to transition to a zero-carbon economy has led climate activists to call for a transition to electric vehicles that run on rechargeable batteries instead of gas but marine scientists and conservationists say that mining metals for the batteries is putting ocean life at risk.
International mining companies are positioning themselves to profit from the extraction of metals needed to produce electric car batteries like iron, nickel, copper, titanium and cobalt. DeepGreen Metals is one such Canadian-based seabed mining company.
According to the start-up company’s website, they “are scientists, environmentalists, engineers and entrepreneurs who see climate change and meeting the resource needs of nine billion people as the biggest challenges of our time.”
DeepGreen has exploration contracts to explore metals in polymetallic nodules in ocean waters off the coast of the Pacific island nations of Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati. The company aims to mine metals, such as cobalt, needed for batteries from the polymetallic nodules.
Polymetallic nodules are also called manganese nodules. The nodules sit on the seafloor and contain valuable metals.
Catherine Coumans of Miningwatch Canada is one of many who are concerned about the impact of seabed mining on the marine environment.
“Plans to mine the deep sea show every hallmark of the environmental disasters industrial mining has created on land, including long-lasting ecosystem destruction and a failure to deliver benefits to local communities and vulnerable developing countries,” said Coumans.
DeepGreen’s CEO Gerard Barron told RNZ that sea-bed mining is an exciting new venture for addressing climate change while benefiting the Pacific countries: “It will mean jobs for them, it will mean economic prosperity, and the opportunity to participate in one of the most exciting new initiatives that can really have a meaningful impact on addressing climate change, and that’s good for everyone on the planet.”
However, a report released in May refutes DeepGreen’s claims.
On May 19, the Deep Sea Mining Campaign in collaboration with MiningWatch Canada released a report on the impact of mining deep sea polymetallic nodules. The report analysed more than 250 peer-reviewed scientific articles and found that the impacts are extensive, severe, and would cause irreversible damage to an ocean already under stress.
The report, Predicting the impacts of mining deep sea polymetallic nodules in the Pacific Ocean, also denies DeepGreen Metals’ claims that there will be economic gains for Pacific island economies.
The report calls for a moratorium as the only responsible way forward until several fundamental conditions can be met, including environmental, social and economic risks to be comprehensively understood and no loss of biodiversity.
Dr. Andrew Chin, the report’s lead researcher, stated, “We’ve only scratched the surface of understanding the deep ocean. Science is just starting to appreciate that the deep sea is not an empty void but is brimming with wonderful and unique life forms. Deep sea ecosystems form an interconnected realm with mid and surface waters through the movement of species, energy flows, and currents.”
Chin added, “Not only will the nodule mining result in the loss of these species and damage deep sea beds for thousands of years, it will potentially result in negative consequences for the rest of the ocean and the people who depend on its health.”
The nodules take a million years to form and the impacts of habitat loss from mining the nodules on the deep sea octopus and many species are not yet studied.
The report also notes how some mining companies are considering discharging waste back into the ocean after initial processing and how that will impact sea life: “A range of animals including whales, turtles and tuna are known to routinely make extended deep dives to 1,000 metres below the surface and deeper. Such species could be exposed to mine waste discharged at any point in the water column.”
Dr. Helen Rosenbaum of the Deep Sea Mining Campaign warned, “Under the cover of COVID-19 the regulations could be pushed through despite the absence of meaningful public debate.”
“DeepGreen promotes deep sea mining as creating great wealth with minimal or no adverse impacts. The science does not support their claims. In fact, the best available research clearly indicates that the mining of deep sea nodules will place Pacific island states at great risk. The stakes are extremely high with Pacific economies, cultures, livelihoods, fisheries, food security, tourism, and iconic marine species all under threat from deep sea nodule mining,” added Rosenbaum.
“DeepGreen’s partnership with Tonga, Kiribati, and Nauru is potentially a catalyst for conflict with the push from Fiji, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea for a moratorium, and Pacific civil society’s vocal opposition to an industry that would destroy their oceans and Pacific way of life.”
Coumans, of MiningWatch Canada, added, “The report’s case study of the failed Nautilus Minerals deep sea mining project attests to the harsh realities of thinly capitalized operators, and contracts that protect corporate interests over that of governments. This project left the government of Papua New Guinea with a debt of $125 million US.”
Nautilus Minerals filed for bankruptcy in 2019. Nautilus’ Solwara 1 gold, silver and copper project off the coast of Papua New Guinea is opposed by locals and is the subject of legal proceedings. Removed from the Toronto Stock Exchange as part of the bankruptcy proceedings, Nautilus moved to unregulated trading, which Mining.com reported resulted in a surge in the buying of the company’s shares.
The report notes that Pacific islands have experienced decades of mining and yet their economies are underdeveloped. The report concludes, “Even if commercially successful, deep sea mining may not provide sufficient revenues to be an economic panacea for Pacific islanders, or to offset predicted and potential losses in current uses of the ocean.”
According to DeepGreen, deep sea mining is preferable to terrestrial mining and is able to meet the demand for minerals for technology required to reduce global carbon emissions.
Professor Alex Rogers, a deep sea ecologist and expert reviewer of the report, refutes DeepGreen’s claims: “I do not agree that mining the deep seabed is necessary to achieve this. Post COVID-19, we have a unique opportunity to develop a ‘green’ transition to a zero-carbon economy with far more sustainable ways to meet mineral requirements.”
Rogers explained, “We can do this through better regulation of terrestrial mining, circular economies based on smart design, recycling, reduced demand, and development of new technologies such as batteries that do not rely on metals obtained with a high environmental cost.”
Besides seabed mining, governments like Indonesia are supporting an expansion of its mining and smelting industries to meet the demands for battery metals.
Siti Maimunah, a scholar and activist on mining from Indonesia, calls the greening of energy “a new frontier of extraction.”
Cortney MacDonnell is an environmental action reporter with RAVEN (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment), a research project based at the University of New Brunswick.
With files from MiningWatch Canada and Tracy Glynn.