Mining has always been the science of exploiting the planet’s mineral deposits, and that came at a high cost to the environment. The mining industry has created the worst wastelands on our planet. Now humans have turned their attention to the oceans. Deep-sea mining will extract a heavier toll than land mining ever did.
The mining companies are opening up new areas that open up new forms of exploitation of the earth’s resources. And deep-sea mining would be the worst form of environmental plunder. The ocean beds that hold more than ever are ripped from the heart of the earth. The scraping of the floor of the ocean by gigantic machines is altering or destroying deep-sea habitats.
Half a century ago, humans began dreaming of mining the deep seabed. the advent of newer technologies has caused that to become a reality. Gradually, the dreams could transform into a dystopian nightmare for the environment.
Delusions Of Striking It Big Through Deep Sea Mining
We are still to start deep-sea mining in a big way, but it could start soon in countries such as China, Russia, UK, France, Belgium, Jamaica, and Japan. These countries already have their sights set on the metals inside coal-sized nodules scattered across the vast plain on the bed of the oceans at depths from 3,000 to 6,000 meters (around 10,000 to 20,000 feet).
The beds are at the Clarion Fracture Zone, also known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the North Pacific Ocean, roughly between Hawaii and Mexico. This area is a hotbed of research for deep-sea mining and has an abundance of manganese nodule resources. But this zone is also home to diverse marine lifeforms. More than half of the species found in this region are new to science.
Such rare-earth elements found in the nodules could play a vital role in the transition to sustainable energy and a low-carbon economy.
This zone has been split up into 16 deep-sea mining claims spanning an area of approximately 390,000 square miles (1,000,000 square kilometers). An additional 9 areas have been marked for conservation, each covering 62,000 square miles (160,000 square kilometers) each.
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Estimates put out by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) reveal that there are more than 21B tons (Bt) of potato-sized rocks called ‘polymetallic nodules’ lying on the seafloor. These contain around 5.95 Bt of manganese,0.27 Bt of nickel, 0.23 Bt of copper, and 0.05 Bt of cobalt.
But these areas of the fracture zones that have been marked for deep-sea mining are also the home of a diverse collection of deep-sea xenophyophores, unicellular organisms found at depths between 500 and 10,600 meters. 34 of the species found in the area are new to science. These organisms are highly sensitive to human interference and deep-sea mining will have that adverse effect on them.
Different organizations are researching TU Delft and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They both have observer status in the ISA. But it is still unknown how the release of tailings from the processing of nodules into the open sea affects the organisms or the detrimental effect it can have on the benthic community living below.
Sounding The Opening Alarm As International Mining Companies Get Into The Act
It began with a short administrative note sent by a South Pacific microstate to an institution located in the Caribbean. The note could have far-reaching consequences on global governments and could impact international governance.
This June, Nauru, the tiny island republic, informed ISA that it intends to permit the mining company, The Metals Company, to begin mining operations on the seabed within 2 years. This innocuous note could set off a race for the resources of the last frontier on earth, the sea beds in the middle of the continental shelves of the vast Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Nauru has triggered the so-called ‘2-year rule’ that allows for a mining plan to be approved after 2 years under whatever rules are in place at that time. This in effect gives the ISA just 2 years to complete long-running talks on rules governing the new controversial industry.
The move has set the cat among the pigeons as governments around the world, scientific academies, conservation movements, and the public, are surprised that a decision that affects the world environment could be left to a sponsorship agreement between a multinational mining entity and a tiny island.
Jumping The Gun Without Calculating The Enormous Costs
Experts say that little is known about the deeper regions of the ocean and a lot of research is necessary before any decision is taken on deep-sea mining. There are still no laws to define how deep-sea mining should be regulated.
Conservationists believe that going ahead with any exploration or other deep-sea mining activity will only cause devastation in this uncertain period.
The administration in Nauru has used a controversial provision in international law to declare that the mining contractor had requested a mining permit.
Regulators admit that they have little knowledge in the area they are dealing with, as the deep oceans remain a far greater mystery than the far reaches of space. Scientists are yet to determine the inhabitants of those impossible depths, with many species yet to be identified.
The government has not even devised rules and laws to deal with such a complex issue. Nauru has argued that the draft for deep-sea mining regulations was nearly complete after 7 years of talks.
A Wasteland Called Nauru
Nauru is in the news again as they are set to repeat the mistake made a generation ago. The British, Germans, and later the Australians and New Zealanders plundered their land of its phosphate reserves. The entire island was ravaged by strip mining and was practically unusable.
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The present government in Nauru has again taken steps to plunder its natural resources through deep-sea mining. It has teamed up with TMC to mine the surrounding seabed. But major industrial users, including BMW, Volvo, Samsung, and Google, say that TMC is creating a false sense of urgency and have teamed up with WWF, calling for a halt to deep-sea mining.
Deep-Sea Mining: A Repeat Of The Robber Baron Era
The mining industry has always been about making wealth and power for a handful. The majority has always been deprived and exploited under their enormous power.
The industry has destroyed, defiled, and interfered with nature. Forests have been cut down, strip mining has decimated mountains, the streams and lakes have been ruined, the atmosphere poisoned, the oceans overfished.
And each time nature has struck back with venom. And the man makes the same blunder again, greed getting the better of him each time. So it becomes difficult to sympathize with his predicament. Each of the problems that humans are facing is man-made and will only get worse.
While greed has come into question with the acquisition of scientific knowledge, it has always been stifled by the hunger for more. Policies are molded by people who reap short-term benefits, rather than by those who remain to clean the mess.
And the mining sector is moving away from human habitation into inhospitable terrains. It does have the same effect on the environment, but here they are hidden from the human eye which means a lesser likelihood of protests, or media coverage, or even legal challenges.
This independent supervision is even more difficult in the case of deep-sea mining. This form of mining goes beyond all state jurisdictions, is too expensive and inhospitable for environmental watchdogs to reach, and too remote for the media, and hidden from the eyes of people.
Mining companies planning to operate in the deep seas have promised to uphold environmental standards at the highest level, and operate within international guidelines.
But like with all other mining projects, they apply pressure on the governments and regulatory groups to bend rules and maintain the bottom line. Policies are discussed and decided away from the eyes of people, who are unaware that deep-sea mining could be an enormous decision that could have implications for the whole planet.
The mining industry has always managed to keep away from any form of consistent regulations. Modern industry is still regulated by archaic laws as old as 150 years that help these behemoths get away with murder.
Deep-sea mining is merely the next step for the mining giants in their destructive quest. They always look at a new frontier to conquer instead of making the optimum use of existing resources.
Striving To Keep The Region Out Of The Ambit Of Deep Sea Mining
But various environmental groups have said that the draft is far from ready. They have called for a total ban on any activity till a complete consensus is reached.
The World Wildlife Fund in a statement said that prematurely forcing through regulations without sufficient scientific knowledge of the deep sea, or following due processes was not in conformity with the cautionary approach and various principles of international laws on the environment.
Conservationists including Chris Packham and David Attenborough have strongly argued that it would be reckless to move ahead when scientists are still unsure of the environmental implications of such a huge intrusion into an unknown world.
Greenpeace has said that Nauru’s move to trigger the 2-year rule was a test of governments who claim they are interested in protecting the oceans.
Environmentalists are united in their view that deep-sea mining if permitted, could unleash an environmental disaster. Mining for nodules could wipe out unique species and populations. Plumes from sediments could overwhelm the fragile ecosystem and its inhabitants. Wastewater from mining operations could pollute the open waters of the deep ocean. Deep-sea mining for nodules could affect the population of tuna, tardigrades, corals, whale sharks, octopuses, and a huge array of marine life forms.
If Nauru is allowed to grant permission for deep-sea mining to The Metals Company, it would pave the way for dozens of countries and corporations, having an adverse impact covering thousands of square miles of seabed that could cause irrevocable harm lasting decades.
This step could also lead to the mining of giant underwater mountains and hydrothermal veins, home to an astonishing array of ecosystems. Other than the immediate impact upon the environment, deep-sea mining could also have more widespread implications. It could lead to disruption of climate regulations, nutrient cycling, and the long-term storage of carbon in the ocean.
Other than the environmental catastrophe, deep-sea mining could damage an ecosystem that could contain unexplored chemicals having a huge potential for new medicines.
But deep-sea mining is not inevitable. Hundreds of scientists, researchers, and policy experts have joined hands, demanding a global moratorium until further studies could be conducted to better understand the implications of such a large-scale invasion of a fragile ecosystem.
They have called for an immediate pause on all deep-sea mining operations until we understand the potential impact of such changes. Coming up with new rules and regulations in the two years will be tough, but scientists are hopeful. The UN General Assembly could have a role to play in this issue. It has set a precedent when it initiated a non-binding resolution on drift netting on the high seas. It ultimately led to a moratorium on this form of fishing which has led to the death of large numbers of whales, dolphins, seabirds, and sea turtles.
A similar UN resolution for a moratorium on deep-sea mining could include a wider strategy for mining which could responsibly meet the demand for minerals needed to support the spread of green forms of technology.
Civil society, the fishing sector, corporations, financial institutions, and national governments have supported the demand for a moratorium, at least temporarily.
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The European Parliament has strengthened its support for a moratorium and has called on the European Commission and member states of the EU to join in. Several bilateral discussions on deep-sea mining are in progress at present.
It will take the concerted efforts of all nations to include the beds of the oceans to the list of regions such as Antarctica that will be left out of the ambits of exploration for commercial gains. Such regions are too fragile and important to be opened up for commercial exploitation.