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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why deep-sea mining is the next battleground in the energy transition

By Ephrat Livni

Surging demand for metals used in electric vehicle batteries has kicked off an international race to mine the deep seas. And there are no rules.

Last week, the International Seabed Authority missed an important deadline to establish a regulatory framework, which means that companies can now apply for licenses before rules are final. Representatives from the agency, which is made up of 167 member states and the European Union, have gathered in Jamaica for two weeks to debate what should happen next.

Canada, France, Germany and others want to pause deep-sea mining because of its largely unknown environmental consequences. But countries including China, Norway and Russia are pushing ahead on establishing a framework, arguing that it is less destructive than land mining.

Seabed exploitation ventures, however, are eager to get started.

“We’re preparing our application,” said Gerard Barron, CEO of the Canadian-based Metals Co., which has an agreement with the Pacific island country of Nauru to sponsor its deep-sea mining endeavors.

The company preferred that there were final rules before acting, Barron told DealBook, “but we reserve the right to move forward.”

Regulators are under pressure to act. A United Nations convention establishes waters beyond 12 nautical miles from a territorial coast as communal property, which means that profits from minerals discovered there should be shared to some extent. The ISA is responsible for setting up the structure for profit-sharing and taxing of mining efforts, as well as the legal and ecological guidelines. Or it could ban large-scale commercial mining altogether — though it’s not clear there is a legal path for a pause.

Mining could damage ecosystems that scientists don’t yet understand, said Jessica Battle, an ocean policy expert at the World Wildlife Fund. A study published in the journal Nature this past Tuesday, for example, argued that seabed mining could interfere with tuna migration patterns as climate change drives fish into new waters. Battle has been leading an effort to have businesses pledge not to finance seabed mining or source seafloor materials in their supply chains. More than 30 companies, including BMW, Google, Samsung, Volvo and Volkswagen, have signed on. Similarly, prominent banks in Britain, such as Lloyds and Standard Chartered, are refusing to do business with deep-sea mining entities. And seafood industry groups have demanded a moratorium.

Some also doubt the economic opportunity. Electric vehicles are expected to make up about 35% of cars sold globally by 2030, up from 14% in 2022, according to projections from the International Energy Agency. That growth will increase demand for metals like cobalt, copper and nickel that are used in batteries. But critics say that the expense and logistics of mining in the remote ocean — and transporting metals back to land — raise doubts about whether deep-sea mining can be profitable. Battle argued other solutions in the works — like alternative materials and programs for reusing and recycling batteries — could sufficiently satisfy demand for critical metals. “This industry could start without being needed,” she said of deep-sea mining.

But seabed mining supporters say that existing mining is worse for the environment, and deep-sea mining could help wrestle control of critical metals from China and Russia. Some also see it as an economic lifeline for small island nations that are suffering the worst effects of climate change.

“Do not tell me to ignore the potential for promoting the green transition by not exploring these much-needed minerals for the green revolution that sit in my ocean,” Mark Brown, the prime minister of the Cook Islands, said at a U.N. climate conference last year. He referred to claims of environmental concern from countries that damaged the planet “through decades of profit-driven development” as “patronizing.”

Barron, who was in Jamaica for the ISA meetings this past week, pointed out that even some of the countries calling for a moratorium have exploration licenses that allow them to experiment with mining on a small scale for research purposes. He believes representatives are deciding not whether deep-sea mining can begin, but when. “That horse has bolted,” he said.

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