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Deep-Sea Mining Becomes Eco-Issue of 2023

By Belal Awad · July 26, 2023

A metal's company worker standing over mined metals.  The Metals Company

Nations from around the world have gathered in Kingston, Jamaica for the annual meeting of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to discuss the issue of deep-sea mining. The ISA, which regulates activities on the world’s ocean floor, faces pressure from corporations, and a few countries, to loosen rules on commercial mining. While the authority will likely postpone a serious rethink on its regulation program until at least 2025, the debate has intensified.

Costa Rica was among the nations advocating for a delay in setting new regulations, challenging the imposition of “artificial dates” and arguing for a thorough examination of the impact of mining on the world’s oceans. Costa Rican delegate Gina Guillen-Grillo told Al Jazeera the ocean’s value is more than its potential profitability, saying, “The value of the ocean, which belongs to humanity, is larger than any investment. And we need to be able to look to our children and grandchildren in their eyes and know that we did what was right.”

On the other side of the debate are firms such as The Metals Company, which seek to commence mining operations as soon as possible. The Canadian company said its mining activities would be relegated to a specific area of the Clarion Clipperton zone, which sits between Hawaii and Mexico. The Metals Company downplays concerns over issues such as sediment displacement, asserting that it would be limited to a small area. It said in a statement: “Last year, M.I.T. published three peer-reviewed papers which confirmed that the sediment on the sea floor only rises about two meters above the ocean floor, and up to 98% of it settles in the test area.”

Environmentalist Emma Wilson of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, however, has raised red flags over the potential consequences of deep sea mining: “This activity would result in species extinctions and could potentially impact the ocean’s climate regulatory functions, including carbon, cycling, and storage.” Wilson called for a long-term moratorium on commercial activities.

At the heart of the debate is whether deep-sea mining is necessary at all, given the steep environmental risks it poses. Proponents argue that the metals found on the ocean floor are crucial for green technology, such as electric cars and windmills. Extracting them from the seabed, they say, is a more ecologically friendly option.

The debate will only grow as the ISA develops a new regulatory system that, one hopes, can strike a rational and sustainable balance between the commercial and environmental interests.

Light Wave commentary

The issue of deep-sea mining has become a major global debate. On one hand, proponents argue that harvesting metals from the ocean floor is crucial for advancing green technology. Critics, meanwhile, point to the potential harm mining may do to marine ecosystems and the climate. It will be up to the International Seabed Authority to develop a regulatory strategy that preserves the delicate ecology of our oceans while enabling, if possible, the responsible mining of its precious ores.