Gerard Barron, Chairman and CEO of The Metals Company, in San Diego, California in June 2021, hopes that his company will be able to mine the seafloor for nickel, cobalt, manganese in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Problems With Deep Sea Mining

Deep sea mining companies are not just exploiting the oceans, they're harming the low-income nations surrounding the proposed mine sites.

On July 29, the two-day Wokisok Shark Calling Festival began at Kono village, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. It's not a new gimmick to capitalize on Shark Week or Sharknado movies--although foreign visitors are welcome. Nor do people stand on the beach and yell, Shark!

Instead it's a seasonal rite where fishers paddle out from shore and summon sharks with noise and motion makers--and then they hope, capture them. It's supposed to ensure shark harvests for peoples who depend in part on this source of protein. It's actually one of many such ceremonies that take place in this area of the Pacific.

Although the Kono Village festival hadn't been observed for years, it has been revived this year with an added fillip. It's being held to rally the campaign to stop the relentless attempt by deep-pocketed mining investors called the Solwara 1 project to tear up the local sea bed in search of minerals. Local groups such as the West Coast Development Foundation and the Alliance of Solwara Warriors have been battling Solwara for years, but the latest mining push in the form of a new company called DeepGreen has heightened the struggle.

Solwara is an attempt to vacuum up the mineral accretions on the nearby sea floor called hydrothermal vents or smokers. And DeepGreen and its predecessor Nautilus Minerals have plowed ahead in the absence of any meaningful control or protections. Going up against some of the world's richest extractive industries is hard even in developed countries--and New Ireland is most definitely not developed.

This fight is important--perhaps critical--to arresting the march of yet another disastrous extractive technology. As Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada points out:

The Solwara 1 project is targeting hydrothermal vents for destruction - believed to be the cradles of life on earth and containing unique and as yet poorly understood ecosystems of international importance. Mining these vents will directly impact the food security and culture of nearby coastal communities. The struggle to stop this seabed mine from proceeding stretches beyond the Bismarck Sea as a wider Pacific and global effort to stop seabed mining from ever starting is gaining momentum.

Twice the length and area of Long Island, New Ireland is a skinny, musket-shaped island separating the Pacific Ocean from the Bismarck Sea. It has a population of 250,000 and a capital of some 20,000. Its one road, an island-long highway, is a legacy from the Germans, one of a string of foreign countries who claimed ownership of the island. It took a lot of imagination, or possibly real estate vision, for eighteenth-century British explorer Carteret to name it New Ireland. Except that it's adjacent to the larger island of New Britain--which also resembles its namesake not in the least.

Today both islands are under the control of Papua New Guinea--a financially vulnerable government that has an on-and-off relationship with the mining companies. That's understandable considering the limited opportunities for revenue in a nation whose citizens often lie outside the money economy--or barely within it. And it's a story told all too often among the impoverished nations and indigenous enclaves throughout the world.

Sea Floor Mining

The most successful sea floor mining so far is petroleum extraction; ventures to gather solid ores have been less successful. Many areas of the sea floor abound with polymetallic nodules--small round accretions with a high percentage of precipitated minerals. They've long been known about but in the 1960s and 1970s, international mining consortia invested some half a billion dollars exploring the commercial potential of gathering such nodules. In general, the cost of extraction and processing exceeded land-based sources and projects, so despite much publicity, the undertaking went nowhere.

But no problem. According to MiningWatch Canada's 2019 report Why the Rush?, "As frontier investors and first-mover seabed mining companies, Nautilus and DeepGreen have already made significant profits based on speculation about the possibility and the potential of [deep sea mining] in the Pacific Ocean, without undertaking any actual mining."

Gerard Barron, the flamboyant 55-year-old Australian rock star lookalike--and chairman and CEO of The Metals Company (aka DeepGreen)--is the kind of financial manipulator the business press loves to profile. When he says he's out to save the world from fossil fuels, reporters may take his words somewhat skeptically, but they come back for more. Whatever he may or may not believe about his mission, he knows how to make money. Of his investment in Nautilus, Barron says, "It ended up being a very successful investment."

Barron was the first investor in Nautilus... and the first to leave. And now he's the prime mover behind DeepGreen and its hoped-for merger with a Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation, an elusive financial entity called a Special Purpose Acquisition Company. According to The New York Times, "Sometimes called blank-check companies, SPACs raise money from investors without having a detailed business plan. Their sole purpose is to find another business to buy within two years. If that doesn't happen, the company folds and investors get their money back."

These financial shenanigans not only exploit the sea, they also harm the small, low-income nations surrounding the proposed mine sites, most of whom don't have the clout to stop such risky ventures. By contrast, the nearby Australian Northern Territory earlier this year banned seabed mining in its coastal waters, citing the environment, Indigenous sites and fishing.

Even with these larger opponents, DeepGreen has fought back with Green arguments. According to Reuters, "Vancouver-based DeepGreen intends to produce from 2024 metals from polymetallic rocks, found deep in the Pacific Ocean, for use in batteries that will power electric vehicles (EVs)." In other words, "It's Green, folks, so it's just fine."

But for Nautilus, its greed long precedes its greenness. In 2010, the company received a license to exploit an area in the Bismarck Sea where they hoped to extract commercial-grade seabed sulfide (SMS) deposits containing metal sulfides, gold, and silver.

Gold Rush

Few impoverished Pacific nations can resist the lure of free riches just for licensing their unused coastal seabeds, often within Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

In the New Ireland case, local groups reacted to the news of Nautilus' Solwara 1 project by demonstrating and lobbying against it, both locally and in international fora. However, big mining money--far more money than opponents could muster--bought government cooperation. Countries such as Nauru, Tonga, and Kiribati aggressively vied to become part of the scheme. And Papua New Guinea (PNG)--larger than the others but still financially weak--also rolled over for the project.

But for PNG, the consequences of participation were especially disastrous. As the project churned ahead, the PNG government was enticed to invest $125 million of its own funds--equivalent to one-third of its health budget. Solwara 1 didn't file an environmental impact report nor was it compliant with international standards. Worse, the affected communities were never consulted. Predictably Papuans and their environmental allies were furious and mounted a vigorous campaign to stop the project. The financial collapse and subsequent bankruptcy of Nautilus meant that the PNG government was stuck with the bill and no way to collect.

Not so for select Nautilus shareholders. "Some investors in first-mover seabed mining companies have already made handsome profits based on speculation about the possibility and the potential of DSM in the Pacific Ocean, without undertaking any actual mining," according to Why the Rush? So, the rich made out handsomely and the poor footed the bill... again.

DeepGreen and Its Discontents

Enter DeepGreen, Gerard Barron's latest financial legerdemain. Pitching polymetallic nodules as "a battery in a rock," Barron in March of this year announced plans to take DeepGreen public. If the merger goes through, the new company will be called, with typical humility, The Metals Company. There's no reason to suspect that this new venture will be any different than the last. Writes Bloomberg News, "The company seems to know the allure of guilt-free mining. As Barron put it to an interviewer in 2019, 'Whether you invest in a company like DeepGreen or not, everyone's a sucker for the story.'"

So far, DeepGreen has partnered with Nauru, Tonga, and Kiribati to acquire mining rights across 90,000 square miles between Hawaii and Mexico. Yet, none of the three nations is located anywhere near the zone.

This action is sanctioned by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an autonomous United Nations organization headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica. The ISA seems to regard its mandate as paving the way for oceanic mining--not protecting the seas. The ISA is so embedded with the industry that in 2019 Nauru violated UN protocol by ceding its seat on the ISA council to Gerard Barron. The ISA permitted it.

Despite the rush to mine and speculate, the business press and even the mining industry are expressing doubts. For instance, The Wall Street Journal wrote tepidly of a seabed miner that "positions itself as an ecological crusader with a planned $2.9 billion valuation, even as oceanographers warn of ruined habitats."

However, Forbes posits otherwise, "From almost any perspective, seabed mining of metals is better for the environment, social justice issues and economics... A large continuous supply of special economic metals is essential for any high tech future." But of course Forbes writers don't live on New Ireland.

In the end, despite the seemingly unstoppable march of technology, the best course is simply... don't. In 2015, Richard Steiner, author of Oasis Earth, succinctly laid out the risks in the Huffington Post:

Environmental risks and impacts of deep sea mining would be enormous and unavoidable, including seabed habitat degradation over vast ocean areas, species extinctions, reduced habitat complexity, slow and uncertain recovery, suspended sediment plumes, toxic plumes from surface ore dewatering, pelagic ecosystem impacts, undersea noise, ore and oil spills in transport, and more ... the only wise policy is a global moratorium on all deep sea mining.

However, getting to "don't" is anything but easy. To achieve that, deep sea mining opponents must depend on the organizing abilities of a collection of indigenous groups and their NGO allies. Local Shark Calling Festivals and increasing local resistance are certainly central components of the strategy. At this point the world is not desperate for seabed mining. Now is indeed the time to strike while the smokers are still hot.

© 2023 Foreign Policy In Focus