International Seabed Authority decides future of clean energy and ocean ecosystems

The news: As the race toward the clean energy transition accelerates, mining companies are eyeing the ocean’s rare earth mineral wealth as a goldmine of opportunity.

The future of controversial deep-sea mining is in the hands of the UN International Seabed Authority (ISA), which held meetings last week on the approval of deep-sea mining regulations for adoption by July 2023. The organization faces accusations of secrecy over the deliberations, per The Guardian.

  • The talks follow an announcement by the island-nation Nauru about its plan to start mining in international waters.
  • Google, BMW, Volvo, Volkswagen, and Samsung’s battery subsidiary SDI have sided with the World Wildlife Fund in calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
  • The EU and several countries have stated that there’s not enough information about potential environmental damage to proceed with ocean mining activities, while the UK pushes for green-lighting regulations.
  • Commercial deep-sea mining isn’t yet happening. However, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin submitted a renewal exploration license application in the US. State-owned entities in China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea have exploration licenses from the ISA, per Salon.

Why we’re watching this: The decision about whether to mine the oceans will have major implications for mineral resources used in batteries for EVs, renewable energy systems, and electronics. It will also determine the trajectory of land-based mineral mining, which is ramping up in the US and elsewhere.

  • Lockheed Martin’s licenses are for exploration of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific—a treasure trove of polymetallic nodules thought to contain millions of tons of copper, manganese, nickel, cobalt, and other rare earth minerals. Cobalt-rich hydrothermal vents are also on the mining menu.
  • The oceans are the world’s largest ecosystems, with over 80% of it unexplored, per NOAA. Seabeds contain an abundance of microbes and mysterious species like Dumbo octopuses (pictured below) that would likely be threatened by mining activities.

An ocean of problems: Minerals are the crux of the clean energy transition to reduce foreign dependence on fossil fuels, tackle pollution, and curb climate change. However, the question is whether the risks of deep-sea mining outweigh the benefits.

  • The rush to secure minerals from the ocean as part of nations’ climate strategies is counterproductive if mining diminishes the ocean floor’s ability to sequester carbon.
  • Bolstering battery and e-waste recycling efforts coupled with developing alternative battery technologies may reduce the need for new mining ventures.
  • Companies like Google and Samsung pledging to abstain from deep-sea-sourced minerals could kneecap the ocean mining industry.

(Source: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)