Mining in the sea despite gaps in knowledge: the approaching deadline harbors uncertainty

GAn agreement to protect the world’s oceans has only just been concluded at the UN – now the international community could go in the opposite direction. At a council meeting of the International Seabed Authority ISA from Thursday (March 16) to March 31 in Jamaica, the focus will be on commercial deep-sea mining.

A deadline for passing regulations expires after two years on July 9th. According to this, applications can be made for the extraction of raw materials on the seabed – even if there are no regulations and despite major environmental concerns.

It looks like the deadline will be missed. But what then? It is good, said Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens) recently Online format “Europe Calling”“that we now ask ourselves: Are we now heading into the abyss because humanity wants to satisfy its hunger for raw materials in the most remote corners of the planet?”.

According to a clause in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994, the small Pacific state of Nauru triggered the two-year period by announcing an application for dismantling.

The Metals Company’s drillship ‘Hidden Gem’ in the seaport of Rotterdam, fitted out for deep-sea mining in 2021

Source: Jochen Tack/picture alliance

Nauru acts as a sponsor of a subsidiary of the Canadian group The Metals Company (TMC). He wants to collect manganese nodules on the seabed in the international waters of the Pacific. According to TMC, it wants to supply metals for the energy transition in the most environmentally and socially compatible way possible.

Ores of raw materials in manganese nodules

Roughly potato-shaped, manganese nodules are found on the sea floor at about 4000 to 6000 meters depth. They form extremely slowly from deposits – they only grow a few millimeters thick in a million years – and contain ores of raw materials such as manganese, cobalt, copper and nickel. Sponges and corals grow on them, providing habitat for animals.

This is what manganese nodules look like

This is what manganese nodules look like

Source: Ingo Wagner/picture alliance

According to initial investigations, deep-sea mining has devastating consequences for this habitat. With the degradation method that TMC and the Belgian company GSR have already tested in the so-called Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) between Mexico and Hawaii, in addition to the manganese nodules, all organisms that live in and on the sediment and on the nodules sucked up with.

This was reported by Matthias Haeckel, biogeochemist at the Geomar Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel and coordinator of the European research project MiningImpact, which investigated the tests of the machines called collectors. According to him, companies like TMC and GSR will probably not technically achieve commercial deep-sea mining on an industrial scale until the end of this decade.

For economic reasons, the companies aim to harvest two to three million tons of manganese nodules per operation per year, Haeckel said recently in a press briefing. In the CCZ, where the nodule density and metal content are particularly high, this corresponds to around 200 to 300 square kilometers. In addition, there is a cloud of sediment that causes damage over a larger area than just in the mining area.

Activists of the environmental protection organization

Activists of the environmental protection organization “Greenpeace” demonstrating on the Pacific in front of the special ship “Maersk Launcher”

Source: Marten van Dijl/Greenpeace/picture alliance

Recent studies by environmental organizations Greenpeace and WWF also came to the conclusion that no raw materials from manganese nodules would be needed for the energy and transport transition. Another study involving Greenpeace warned of dangers for whales due to underwater noise from deep-sea mining.

Because little is known about the ecosystems of the deep sea and the effects of mining on them, several states are calling for a moratorium, a break or even a ban. The federal government is committed to a precautionary break. “Since there are significant knowledge gaps, we see no viable basis for the mining of raw materials,” said Lemke.

Some corporations such as BMW, Volkswagen, Google, Philips and Samsung SDI have joined a WWF call for a moratorium and have pledged not to use any raw materials from the deep seabed and also not to finance deep sea mining.

Nevertheless, Nauru and TMC could prevail with their project. Pradeep Singh from the Research Institute for Sustainability at the Helmholtz Center Potsdam told the German Press Agency that the realization was gradually coming that the deadline could no longer be met. It is now necessary to clarify what happens if an application for deep-sea mining is submitted after the deadline has expired. Nauru takes the position that the Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that such requests must be approved. According to Singh, who is an observer at the international agency’s meetings, they could also be rejected.

The ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission (LTC) could play an important role. If the expert panel makes a recommendation, says Singh, it is very difficult for the council to reject it – among other things, a two-thirds majority is required for this. According to Lemke, it would be best if the ISA Council made an application-handling decision soon to prevent a positive recommendation from the LTC in the absence of mining regulations. Germany is very committed to the issue.

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