Deep-sea mining: a significant environmental, social and economic risk to potential investors

Date: March 11, 2021

Author: Farah Obaidullah, Global Campaigner, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition

Deep-sea mining is a non-renewable, extractive industry that belongs in the past and presents significant risks to potential investors. We need to hit pause on this destructive, emerging industry. We do not need to open a whole new frontier of industrial resource extraction at a time when it is clearer than ever that reducing human pressures on the planet is essential to our long-term survival.

As the world’s largest mining summit, PDAC 21, comes to a close this week  and with the recent news of the Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation (SOAC) acquired DeepGreen Metals, a deep-sea mining company, it is imperative that potential investors in this emerging non-renewable industry are aware of the huge reputational, financial, social and environmental risks it poses.

Concerns that these risks would outweigh the potential net benefits for humankind are being raised by a broad spectrum of society including politicians, the fishing industry, civil society and the scientific community. Indeed, just this week, New Zealand’s Māori Party called for a nationwide ban on seabed mining

Image courtesy of NOAA/Bruce Strickrott, Expedition to the Deep Slope.

Proponents of the extractive deep-sea mining industry aim to strip-mine and vacuum up valuable tennis-ball sized mineral deposits from the deep seabed, essential habitat for life in the deep ocean, for short-term profit. Experimental and exploratory deep-sea mining activities are already underway, but mining operations have not yet begun at a commercial scale, with regulations currently being negotiated. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that not only is this industry not wanted, but it is not needed. Indeed, a DeepGreen subsidiary, Tonga Offshore Minerals Ltd recently acknowledged that there are enough metal-bearing deposits on land to meet the needs of the clean energy transition

Financial institutions are, already and increasingly considering the significant risks associated with this industry. ABN AMRO, NatWest (previously Royal Bank of Scotland), Lloyds Banking Group, and BBVA Spain have all adopted policies against investing. The World Economic Forum has also come out warning of potential reputational risks to downstream users of the metals produced from deep-sea mining and The World Bank recently urged ‘precaution precaution precaution.’ The UN Environment Programme  also recently published guidance on how to finance a sustainable ocean recovery which explicitly excludes deep-sea mining, defining it as an ‘unsustainable practice’.

The founders of DeepGreen were early investors in the now bankrupt company Nautilus Minerals, which was similarly registered on Toronto Stock Exchange. The founders departed prior to the company’s downturn in fortunes, leaving investors in debt and the Papua New Guinea government to lose its  US$125 million investment. The Papua New Guinea government is now concerned about the economic and environmental implications of deep-sea mining and supports a moratorium (official delay). Across the Pacific region, communities are increasingly saying no to deep-sea mining with a recent national consultation in Tonga finding that across all five islands community groups said “No seabed mining for my island; no seabed mining for my region; and no seabed mining for my world.”

Deep-sea mining risks disturbing some of the largest greenhouse gas sinks on the planet, potentially exacerbating the climate crisis. It could also result in the loss of future medicines (the COVID-19 test was derived from the deep-sea) and could impact global fisheries, including by potentially contaminating seafood through sediment plumes that would be continually generated throughout the 30-year mining contracts proposed.  In light of the many risks posed by this industry, a recent publication by The Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) highlighted the crucial need for any financial benefits of the industry to take into account value lost associated with environmental damage and lost opportunities for future generations.

Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas.

This non-renewable industry would not replace terrestrial mining, but would only serve to expand the ecological footprint of unsustainable industrial resource extraction and science has shown that the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining would be irreversible on human timescales. This is leading many scientists across the world to advocate for a precautionary approach, or moratorium, highlighting the need for more information on the damage that mining the deep will inflict on nature before activities could go ahead. Leading public figures, including Sir David Attenborough are also advocating for a moratorium. 

In order to transition to a green economy and a sustainable future for people and the planet, it is critical that we invest in new innovative technologies and a transformation to a resource efficient, closed-loop materials circular economy that reduces the need for primary metals. Alternative energy technologies are indeed already under investigation that reduce the need for new materials, including by Tesla, SAIC Motor and IBM Research amongst others.

Deep-sea mining is a non-renewable extractive industry that poses huge risks to people and planet. It cannot be considered sustainable and compatible with current global commitments, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This speculative endeavour is a false solution to the climate crisis- in fact, it may further exacerbate it.  

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