3 Jul 2021

Environmental groups, scientists call for ban on deep sea mining

5:14 pm on 3 July 2021

Hundreds of scientists, and coalitions of churches, environmentalists, and NGOs are calling for a ban on deep sea mining, following a political move that may open the gates for it to begin in the Pacific in two years.

Victor Pickering, a Greenpeace activist from Fiji, in front of the Maersk Launcher, a ship chartered by DeepGreen.

Victor Pickering, a Greenpeace activist from Fiji, in front of the Maersk Launcher, a ship chartered by DeepGreen. Photo: Supplied / Greenpeace

This week, the fledgling deep sea mining sector got a green light for future mining in the Pacific by 2023, due to Nauru setting a "two year" rule in motion at the International Seabed Authority.

The Authority, tasked with regulating the seabed, confirmed Nauru triggered a clause that would allow mining to begin in two years within its Exclusive Economic Zone.

However, some fear the move could have opened the path for a 'domino-effect' and other countries could also open their doors to the controversial new industry.

Pacific groups call on Nauru to reconsider

A wide cross-section of Pacific organisations have called on Nauru to reconsider its decision, including the Pacific Council of Churches, the Pacific Islands Association of Non-governmental Organisations and the Pacific Network on Globalisation.

Pacific Network on Globalisation coordinator Maureen Penjueli said there were mounting concerns the industry could exploit the region.

"In the absence of clear governance mechanisms to deal with the trigger [of the clause at the International Seabed Authority, and] the recurring scientific concerns around impacts, we are really calling for an outright ban at this stage whilst we try and get [the] governance systems in order."

The civil society network said there were too many significant unknowns about how the new mining process could affect the surroundings and wider environment to allow it to proceed.

Environmental groups and hundreds of scientists voice concerns

The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, a coalition of environmental groups, called on governments to act now to stop an industry that many believe could have devastating environmental effects, for questionable economic gain.

The coalition's international legal advisor Duncan Currie said if Nauru is successful it could start a race to the bottom of the ocean with other countries.

"This is really of utmost importance. That's why we would love to see the New Zealand government engaging with the Australian government and Pacific islands governments in calling for a stop to this, and calling for a moratorium within two years."

The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition said Nauru's move went against scientific advice, which is that not enough is known about the environmental damage deep sea mining would cause for it to proceed at this stage.

In late June 350 marine scientists and policy experts from 44 countries published a statement calling for a pause to deep sea mining operations until "sufficient and robust scientific information has been obtained" for informed decisions about it to be made.

Bloomberg news last week reported the ambitions of one of the major mining companies - DeepGreen comes with "deep risks".

It said the company had pitched the mining as gentle ocean floor excavations that would provide minerals for electric car batteries, as well as large profits. However it reported the company's previous operations had created "political and financial leverage over its partners, who are dependent on its expertise", and will be on the hook to ensure it complies with international environmental rules.

The report said the area of ocean the company wanted to mine could be one of the most diverse and rich in biological life on the planet.

DeepGreen is now called The Metals Company after a merger. The organisation didn't respond to RNZs questions.

However, the chief executive and chairman of both DeepGreen and The Metals Company Gerard Barron earlier said the metals that would be mined are vital for the batteries needed for a zero carbon economy.

Gerard Barron, the CEO and Chairman of DeepGreen Metals, seen here at an annual session of the International Seabed Authority, has forged close links to Nauru's government.

Gerard Barron, head of DeepGreen and The Metals Company, caused controversy by forging close links to Nauru's government, including taking Nauru's seat at a 2019 International Seabed Authority meeting. Photo: International Institute for Sustainable Development

He said the nodules which the metals are found in can be plucked from the surface of the ocean floor without drilling, digging or blasting, and with less toxic tailings and other damage compared to other mining techniques.

But environmental group Pacific Blue Line collective said the operations would cause irreversible and widespread harm to the environment, and the species and habitat that could be affected are irreplaceable.

"The Collective believes the Nauru Government has been persuaded by DeepGreen to take this action on the pretext that the urgency of the climate crisis demands the commencement of mining in two years, without regard for the potentially wide-ranging environmental damage arising from deep sea mining.

"The damage could see the Nauru Government, future administrations, and Nauruan people face liability for environmental consequences that cannot be foreseen or appreciated at this stage."

Pacific Blue Line Collective said potential economic gains from deep sea mining were "highly speculative and unsubstantiated", and the damage could put economic strain on Pacific nations.

"In the Pacific, one of the major concerns is the impact of mining upon coastal communities. Deep seabed mining would likely cause massive sediment plumes that could affect crucial tuna and other fish stocks, thus further destabilizing livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of ocean- dependent people and communities.

"The Pacific Ocean is already under mounting pressure from human activities and the impacts of climate change, and there is substantial evidence that we need to now be embarking on an era of restoration, not further reckless exploitation."

Greenpeace called the growing interest in deep sea mining a "disturbing new threat". It said DeepGreen is spearheading the movement, and the Rainbow Warrior had been tracking their operations, among others.

The organisation claimed another mining company recently lost a 25-tonne robot while carrying out seabed testing.

Victor Pickering, a Greenpeace activist from Fiji who has been among the Rainbow Warrior crew said the Pacific environment should be guarded carefully.

"The ocean provides food for our families and connects all of us Pacific islands from one island to another.

"I am taking action because our people, our land, are already facing the threats of extreme storms, rising sea levels, plastic pollution and industrially depleted fish populations. I cannot stay silent and watch another threat - deep sea mining - take away our future."

Pacific Blue Line collective warned that the clause activated at the International Seabed Authority allows sponsor states such as Nauru to jump-start the mining process by invoking a rule that sets a deadline for finalising and adopting mining laws and regulations, which will be set up after global negotiation.

It said that if the global community failed to agree to mining laws and regulations, DeepGreen or its Nauru subsidiary NORI would be able to proceed to mine based on work plans submitted.

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