Deep seabed mining is facing another hurdle with names such as BMW, Google, Volvo and Samsung SDI signed up for a global call from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to put this activity on hold until the environmental, social and economic risks are comprehensively understood.
The companies have joined the increasing chorus of concern about the significant risks to economies and to ocean health that would arise from opening up the deep seabed to extraction of minerals.
Demand for many metals needed to address the energy transition, such as lithium, cobalt, copper, silver, zinc, nickel and rare earth elements (REEs) is drawing increasing attention and has led to a proposal to identify minerals vital for energy security options and identify sourcing challenges.
Marine-based renewable technologies, for instance offshore wind, as well as electric car and phone batteries will be the largest source of increased metal demand.
Potential to mine the deep seabed raises various challenges, including possible conflicts with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
BMW and others have pledged not to source any minerals from the deep sea, and to refrain from using mineral resources from the deep sea in their supply chains and not to finance deep-sea mining activities.
“WWF is calling for a moratorium on deep seabed mining. We welcome this important step, and call on other companies who care about the ocean to join these leaders by signing on to the statement. It is a clear message to those who are swayed by the false promise that deep seabed mining is a ‘green’ and attractive investment proposition. It is not so,” said John Tanzer from WWF.
One of the leading energy countries, Norway, is actively looking into its seabed minerals opportunities, with companies, such as SeaBird, a seismic player with Green Minerals subsidiary, lining up for licenses to potentially capitalise on $83bn worth of resources on the Norwegian Shelf. In addition, Switzerland-based offshore contractor Allseas, who partnered with Canadian firm DeepGreen Metals, is converting an ultra-deepwater drillship to recover polymetallic nodules from the ocean floor.
“The pro-deep seabed mining lobby is creating their own narrative by choosing to portray only some of what we know and don’t know. They are selling a story that companies need deep seabed minerals in order to produce electric cars, batteries and other items that reduce carbon emissions,” said Jessica Battle, leader of WWF’s No Deep Seabed Mining Initiative. “But savvy companies that are committed to sustainability are seeing through that false narrative. Deep seabed mining is an avoidable environmental disaster. We can decarbonize through innovation, redesigning, reducing, reusing and recycling.”
Calls for a global moratorium on deep seabed mining are coming from diverse actors, including scientists, communities, the fishing industry, political leaders, NGOs including WWF, and now also from companies.
The current governance structure under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea gives the International Seabed Authority (ISA) regulatory responsibility for both the minerals on the seafloor in international waters and the protection of the marine environment from the effects of mining.
Since 2001, 30 exploration contracts for deep-seabed minerals have been approved, however commercial mining of the deep seabed has not yet taken place.