Environmental organizations are strongly advocating for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, particularly in light of an upcoming meeting in Jamaica convened by the U.N. International Seabed Authority’s council. There are concerns among conservationists that this meeting might lead to the authorization of the first-ever license for mineral extraction from the ocean floor.
Over 20 countries have already called for a ban or pause on deep-sea mining. Major companies like Samsung and BMW have also committed to abstain from using minerals obtained through deep-sea mining.
Sofia Tsenikli of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition emphasized the significance of this issue, stating that the deep sea constitutes one of the last remaining pristine areas on Earth.
The surge in demand for metals like copper, nickel, and cobalt—essential for technologies like electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind turbines—has fueled interest in deep-sea mining. Mining companies argue that these minerals can be harvested from depths exceeding 600 feet (180 meters) below sea level.
According to a market review by the International Energy Agency published in July, the demand for lithium tripled from 2017 to 2022, with cobalt seeing a 70% rise and nickel a 40% increase.
While mining companies claim that extracting minerals from the deep sea is cheaper and less environmentally damaging compared to land-based mining, scientists and environmental groups counter that less than 1% of the world’s deep seas have been explored. They caution that deep-sea mining could lead to disruptive elements like noise, light pollution, and suffocating dust storms.
Bobbi-Jo Dobush from The Ocean Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit, emphasized the potential peril of deep-sea mining, warning that it could jeopardize the Earth’s last untouched wilderness and put at risk one of the largest carbon sinks.
The International Seabed Authority, responsible for regulating international waters, has granted over 30 exploration licenses, with China holding the highest number at five. In total, 22 countries have been issued such licenses.
The focus of much exploration is on the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, a vast area between Hawaii and Mexico covering 1.7 million square miles (4.5 million square kilometers). Depths for exploration range from 13,000 to 19,000 feet (4,000 to 6,000 meters).
While no provisional mining licenses have been issued yet, concerns are growing that certain members of the International Seabed Authority might push for the adoption of a mining code by 2025, potentially paving the way for licenses in the near future.
The authority clarified that its role is to safeguard and regulate, and that its decisions are reflective of member states’ intentions. They emphasized that no mining will commence until an agreement is reached on regulations governing economic exploitation and environmental protection. The authority also stated that it is incorporating the best available scientific knowledge into ongoing negotiations and considering input from over 100 observers, including non-governmental organizations and civil society groups.