Is deep-sea mining worth the risk?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Is this the best we can leave for our children and future generations? [Shutterstock]

There is no evidence that deep-sea mining will reduce our dependency on land-based mining. We need to end business as usual and act to reduce the demand for these raw materials by making the transition towards a circular economy, write a group of Greens/EFA MEPs.

Linnéa Engström from Sweden, Marco Affronte from Italy, Bart Staes and Philippe Lamberts from Belgium are all Members of European Parliament for the Green/EFA group. MEP Lamberts is the co-president of the Greens/EFA.

In a Parliament resolution on Ocean Governance adopted in January this year a strong majority of the Parliament called for a moratorium on the exploitation of deep-sea mining in international waters.

Big decisions are in the makings. This week the 36 states that are members of the Council of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) meet in Jamaica to begin negotiations on a draft set of regulations to permit the exploitation of deep-sea minerals in international waters. The ISA regulates mining in an area which encompasses nearly 50% of the earth. Until now the only exploration of deep-sea minerals in this area has been permitted by the ISA, but the ISA intends to have brand-new regulations in place by 2020 to allow for commercial exploitation.

As Members of the European Parliament, following our resolution adopted in January, we call on the EU and its Member States to stop all commercial exploration and prevent any exploitation until the environmental risks of deep-sea mining activities are fully understood.

It is like playing Russian roulette with the ecology of half the surface of the earth. We have barely begun to discover the remarkable richness and diversity of the species and ecosystems in the great depths of the oceans and we have little understanding of their role and importance to the oceans and the ecology of the earth as a whole.

A major concern is the likely destruction of species and ecosystems in the areas that will be mined. Moreover, the effect of plumes of sediment stirred up by mining machines on the ocean floor and caused by the wastewater that would be pumped back into the sea after the minerals are retrieved on ships could spread the impacts far beyond the actual mining sites themselves.

These plumes could be toxic and spread over long distances and smother marine life wherever they settle. Scientists have expressed concern that the inevitable loss of biodiversity in the deep sea as a result of deep-sea mining is likely to last forever on human timescales, given the very slow natural rates of recovery in affected ecosystems.

Such strong warnings from scientists clearly call for precaution – and imply that commercial deep-sea mining should not take place until the long-term risks are scientifically understood. The precautionary principle in international law is fundamental to decisions regarding whether or not to permit deep-sea mining and if so, how and under what circumstances.

It is imperative that the EU and its Member states that are involved in this business respect this principle, which is enshrined in the Union treaties and in international law.

Another major issue addressed by the Parliament’s resolution is the problem of transparency. The International Seabed Authority, the UN body which regulates mining of the seabed in international waters, is required to do so for the benefit of humankind but largely operates behind closed doors when it comes to what mining companies are actually doing. So what are the checks and balances when they take such important decisions for mankind?

The reports and findings of the companies currently exploring for deep-sea minerals are not public. They are scrutinised by the International Seabed Authority’s Legal and Technical Commission (LTC) – a 30 person strong body – whose meetings are completely closed to any outside observers, including the countries that are members of the ISA and ultimately responsible for ensuring that it meets international obligations for protecting the marine environment. They review exploratory mining applications and decide whether mining companies should be given licenses to explore for minerals.

But even the environmental impact assessments that mining companies are required to submit to the ISA to obtain such licenses are secret and not even accessible for the Council of the ISA.

We think it is shocking that so few people can make decisions for mankind without any real accountability or transparency.  In addition, it is completely contrary to European values and environmental rules.

This is why the European states and EU companies involved need to take the lead on publishing the environmental impact assessments for their exploration contracts with the ISA. There are currently eight EU countries who sponsor exploration contracts; Germany, Belgium, UK, France, Poland, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Belgium is, for instance, sponsoring an exploration contract with the International Seabed Authority in the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the central Pacific Ocean, a contract held by the Belgian company DEME-GSR. The exploration contract grants the Belgian company the rights to explore 75,000 square kilometres of seabed, an area almost 2.5 times the size of Belgium, for minerals such as copper, cobalt, and nickel. DEME-GSR is currently planning the very first testing of mining equipment in the Clarion Clipperton zone and is required to submit a prior environmental impact assessment to the ISA before the testing can take place.

The eyes of the world will be on Belgium to see how it deals with this. The Belgian government should ensure a fully transparent environmental impact assessment procedure, including public participation. It would set an extremely important precedent internationally, as other tests are bound to follow soon.

As stressed in the Parliament’s resolution; the precautionary principle is fundamental to any decision-making on deep-sea mining, and transparency is essential to the application for the precautionary principle. The EU should coordinate with Member States to work actively to promote more transparency in the working methods of the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

There is no evidence that deep-sea mining will reduce our dependency on land-based mining. We need to end business as usual and act to reduce the demand for these raw materials by making the transition towards a circular economy. It includes better product design, sharing, re-use, repairing, recycling and development of new materials.

The potential to improve our resource efficiency is huge. To open up a new source of raw materials by engaging in deep-sea mining would only prolong the unavoidable and necessary journey towards a sustainable future and potentially subject a whole new frontier of our planet that until now has been largely untouched by human activities to environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and possible species extinctions.

Is this the best we can leave for our children and future generations? We know better and we should act now to prevent this type of unnecessary damage from occurring in the first place. 

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