A woman stands with a megaphone in front of posters saying, "Look Down," and "Defend the Deep."

A woman speaks through a megaphone during a rally against sea mining at Luis de Camoes square in Lisbon, Portugal.

(Photo: Jorge Castellanos/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

At the International Seabed Authority, It’s Out of Sight, Out of Min(e)d

At the start of the current meeting to decide the fate of deep sea mining, new guidelines appeared on the ISA’s website containing hard restrictions to peaceful protest, documentation, and media scrutiny.

If you’re trying to kick-start an environmentally destructive industry in 2023, with the climate movement stronger and more mainstream than ever, you better hope no one notices.

That was the strategy of the deep sea mining industry.

“We want to assist in getting this very delicate legislation [allowing deep sea mining] in place, and keeping that out of the very public eye will be of benefit to us all I feel,” the CEO of a deep sea mining company wrote to the head of the industry’s regulator in 2017, according to the LA Times. And then people started noticing.

Recently, the threat of deep sea mining became concrete as a result of the Canadian-registered The Metals Company using a legal loophole to try and jam through the start of this industry. Now governments gathered at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in Kingston have to decide whether to allow it to go ahead. It’s not looking good: New warnings by scientists about what we stand to lose, petitions from Indigenous Peoples, and concerns from the fishing industry have all contributed to over 20 governments now trying to put the brakes on this reckless industry

The problem for deep sea miners is that the genie is out of the bottle. Limiting the ability of journalists to do their job will only make them keener to dig for more inconsistencies and scandals.

Opposition to deep sea mining needed to be controlled and silenced. In the March ISA meeting, two LA Times journalists who previously exposed the ISA Secretary-General Michael Lodge’s proximity to companies were banned from chambers. Some days later Greenpeace-funded billboards calling on governments to take action to stop being the “Irresponsible Seabed Authority” were taken down.

At the start of the current meeting, new guidelines appeared on the ISA’s website: seven pages containing hard restrictions to peaceful protest, documentation, and media scrutiny. Journalists are seemingly now allowed at just one of the three weeks of the meeting while mining companies sit on government delegations. Also, media actions must not engage in “derisory activity or criticism directed at the Authority, its Member States, the Secretariat, the competent authorities of the host government.”

The new rules also now mention protesting outside the conference center while this is not within the competence of the ISA—and forbid it inside the conference center. Ironically, on the first day of the meeting Lodge took the floor to invite everyone to look at the poster exhibition outside the venue. Spoiler: It’s not children’s drawings of deep sea creatures, much less a platform for Pacific activists, it’s “the first Contractors' Poster Exhibition,” a showcase of propaganda for deep sea mining companies. Climate conferences don’t get away with giving advertising space to the fossil fuel industry, so why is this acceptable for deep sea mining?

Scientists warn that if this industry gets a greenlight, it will cause irreversible and unavoidable harm to the oceans. Good job for the companies that it’s pitch-black 4,000 meters deep, and the area they’re targeting are mostly way out on the high seas, hundreds of kilometers from shore. Even with a fleet of ships like the Rainbow Warrior, it’s hard for Greenpeace to keep an eye on what’s happening down there, much less any kind of international watchdog.

In campaigning to protect the oceans from this industry ever starting, we’ve had to rely on tip-offs from concerned whistleblowers, people with privileged information or access to the industry who can bear its encroachment into the oceans no more.

It’s how we broke the story back in 2021 that a Belgian company had got their deep sea mining machine stuck on the seafloor during trials in the middle of the Pacific—for several days. It took inquiries from journalists for the company to confirm this incident publicly, days after the problem started.

Several governments, who make up the ISA, noted that it should not come down to whistleblowers and civil society to expose the problems. So is it any surprise that at this crunch point the ability to scrutinize and protest these negotiations is facing a major clampdown?

For years, campaigners have warned of corporate capture at the ISA, allowing obscure ownership structures of companies to go unquestioned. Michael Lodge made increasingly pro-mining comments, calling the idea of a moratorium “anti-science.”

A safe, respectful, and courteous working environment requires accountability. Governments are making a momentous decision here that requires the active participation of people across the world, bringing diverse perspectives and, where necessary, criticism and warnings. The U.N. human rights commissioner said as much last week.

The problem for deep sea miners is that the genie is out of the bottle. Limiting the ability of journalists to do their job will only make them keener to dig for more inconsistencies and scandals. Revelations that images of test-mining have been kept locked in a corporate archive for 40 years will only beg the question, what else is there to hide?

When the answer is species extinctions, harm to whales, and deepening exploitation of Pacific peoples, you are basically hiding that you are on the way to becoming the fossil fuel industry of the 21st century. And good luck getting any social license or political approval to operate while global temperatures keep breaking records.

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