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WWF says deep sea mining risks too high

Allowing mining companies to tap deep sea deposits beneath international waters poses too many underwater risks, a global environmental group reported.

A Mediterranean seabed near the Balearic Islands archipelago
A Mediterranean seabed near the Balearic Islands archipelago (AN/Andrey Arkhipov)

The prospect of allowing mining companies to gain access to deep sea deposits beneath international waters poses too many risks to underwater ecosystems and biodiversity, a global environmental group reported on Wednesday.

Swiss-based WWF International said its investigation of deep seabed mining found a lot of unknowns and not enough science to support industry plans for large-scale mining of metals and minerals such as cobalt, lithium and nickel needed for batteries, wiring and other uses in popular consumer and low-carbon technology.

“Industry wants us to think mining the deep sea is necessary to meet demand for minerals that go into electric vehicle batteries and the electronic gadgets in our pockets. But it’s not so,” WWF's Jessica Battle said in a statement.

“We don’t have to trash the ocean to decarbonize," she said. "We should be directing our focus toward innovation and the search for less resource-intensive products and processes. We call on investors to look for innovative solutions and create a true circular economy that reduces the need to extract finite resources.”

A U.N.-authorized intergovernmental organization, the International Seabed Authority, signed 15-year contracts with 21 companies to explore polymetallic nodules and sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in the deep seabed.

The Jamaica-based ISA, which includes 167 nations and the European Union, operates under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Its mandate is to regulate seabeds so they "benefit" everyone but protect against "harmful effects."

A 'new resource opportunity'

In December, a Greenpeace International report found an area about the size of France and Germany was already open to deep sea mining exploration dominated by "a handful of companies" in Europe and North America that use "murky corporate practices" while seeking mainly cobalt and nickel.

It predicted deep sea mining "will cause serious and irreversible damage to the ocean biome, risks driving biodiversity loss and could potentially damage an important carbon sink: the deep ocean."

The report also said ISA lacks environmental and scientific assessment groups, awarding contracts largely through lawyers and geologists, and has a conflict of interest in doing so because it receives US$500,000 for each license.

One of the companies mentioned in the report, Canadian-based DeepGreen Metals, said its contracts with Pacific Island nations were "fundamentally" misunderstood, and the deep sea mining would benefit those nations' economies.

"Without investment in this industry from private sector companies such as ours, Pacific Island nations like Nauru, Kiribati and the Kingdom of Tonga would not otherwise have an opportunity to participate in the benefits of this new resource opportunity to diversify and develop their economies," it said. "Until recently, deep sea exploration was carried out only by the rich industrialized countries, further increasing the potential for global wealth disparity."

WWF's report, however, called attention to how long it takes for underwater habitats to recover from human-inflicted damage, which can easily cross marine boundaries and threaten global fisheries that help sustain coastal communities and keep hundreds of millions of people alive.

It said deep seabed mining will disturb ocean floors by stirring up sediments that choke and kill marine life, and that release plumes of metal carried on currents.

A sustainable "blue" ocean economy built around less-damaging environmental uses and technology would generate up to US$2.4 trillion a year for nations and people along coastlines, greatly dwarfing deep seabed mining's potential to generate up to US$20 billion a year, according to WWF, which called for a global moratorium on deep seabed mining "unless and until" the risks are well understood, solid protections are put in place and no economic alternatives exist.