San Juan, Puerto Rico — Strong demand for metals ranging from copper to cobalt is driving the mining industry to explore the world’s deepest oceans, a troubling development for scientists who warn that extracting minerals from critical ecosystems that help regulate the climate could cause irreparable damage.
The issue will be in the spotlight this week as dozens of scientists, lawyers and government officials gather in Jamaica to discuss deep-sea mining in a two-week conference organized by the International Seabed Authority, an independent body created by a United Nations treaty.
The organization is the global guardian of deep ocean waters that are beyond the jurisdiction of any country. It has issued 31 exploration licenses so far, and many fear that the world’s first license to take the next step and exploit international waters will soon be approved without any regulations currently in place.
Experts say mining could trigger a rush to collect minerals that take millions of years to form and trigger noise, light and choking dust storms deep in Earth’s oceans .
“It’s one of the most pristine parts of our planet. There’s a lot to lose,” said Diva Amon, marine biologist, National Geographic Explorer and science advisor to the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The first exploration permit was issued in the early 2000s, with most current exploration activity concentrated in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, which covers 1.7 million square miles (4. 5 million square kilometers) between Hawaii and Mexico. At least 17 of 31 permits have been issued for this area, with exploration taking place at depths ranging from 13,000 to 19,000 feet (4,000 to 6,000 meters).
The push for deep sea mining has grown to the point that the authority now meets three times a year instead of twice, with a key decision expected as early as July 2023.
According to UK Seabed Resources, which has partnered with Lockheed Martin Corp. to explore the Clarion -Zone Clipperton under two contracts.
“We won’t have the collapse of tailings dams, the destruction of cultural sites, the clearing of rainforest, child artisanal miners, to name a few recent ones,” UK Seabed Resources said in a statement, referring to some of the impacts of mining on land.
The International Seabed Authority issues licenses to state-owned companies and countries that subscribe to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and agree to sponsor private companies seeking to explore international waters for copper, nickel, cobalt, iron, manganese and other minerals. . Notably, the United States does not subscribe to the law.
The International Energy Agency has estimated six times the demand for minerals by 2050 given that electric vehicles and renewable energy generation depend so much on them, according to a Fitch Ratings report released in early October.
“The emissions intensity of cobalt, aluminum and nickel mining and processing is high, so soaring demand can lead to an increase in the net carbon footprint,” a- he declared.
Nauru, a small island northeast of Australia, is leading the campaign to allow real mining, arguing that it poses a high risk of climate change and seeks to financially benefit from the extraction of sought-after metals in part for green technologies such as electric car batteries.
The push has worried countries ranging from Germany to Costa Rica looking to tighten proposed regulations over the next two weeks.
“We are still very concerned about the consequences,” said Elza Moreira Marcelino de Castro, Brazil’s representative at the conference which started on Monday.
French President Emmanuel Macron said earlier this year that he supported a ban on deep-sea mining. Several major companies have pledged not to use metals mined from deep seas and countries like Germany , New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa have called for a moratorium until more is known about its potential impact, a move hailed by scientists and legal experts.
“You can’t regulate what you don’t understand,” said Duncan Currie, international and environmental lawyer and legal adviser to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, a Netherlands-based alliance of environmental groups.
Less than 1% of the world’s deep ocean waters have been explored, an endeavor that experts say is expensive, technical and time-consuming.
The ocean is known to store more carbon than Earth’s atmosphere, plants and soil, and scientists are still discovering new species on rare exploratory voyages, with sample studies taking months, even years, Amon said. Among the finds is a ghost octopus nicknamed “Casper”.
“We don’t understand what lives there, how they live there, the overall function that this ecosystem plays and what we stand to lose by impacting it irreversibly,” she said, adding that the life in the deep sea is incredibly slow, with minerals. increasing by 1 to 10 millimeters every million years. “That means it’s very vulnerable to disruption and extremely slow to recover.”
According to the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative, a global network, some experts believe it would take between six and more than 20 years to collect enough data needed to protect the marine environment from deep-sea mining.
Other concerns about deep sea mining include how revenues would be distributed and how companies seeking sponsorship would be vetted and their activities regulated.
Pradeep Singh, a researcher at the Institute for Advance Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, said there were growing concerns about potential “sweatshop sponsorships” in which private companies could buy a country based on its exemptions. tax, its potentially lax environmental laws and other factors.
“A number of states are starting to frown on these relationships going on behind the scenes,” he said.
Singh also noted that he and others were concerned that the International Seabed Authority would gain some of the revenue if actual mining were to begin given that the agency issues licenses: “It’s a big conflict of interest.”
The authority did not return a message seeking comment.
Michael Lodge, secretary-general of the International Seabed Authority, said in his opening address to the conference that the agency wanted to ensure the protection of the marine environment as member countries worked on draft regulations. .
At a meeting earlier this year, he noted that the authority had expanded a protected area to 1.97 million square kilometers in a vast region for which a majority of exploration licenses have been awarded.
Environmental management plans for other areas under exploration are still being developed.
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