Greenpeace supporters on a protest march. Picture: MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP
Greenpeace supporters on a protest march. Picture: MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP

Greenpeace has called for an immediate moratorium on all deep-sea mining for fear of severe and irreversible harm it may do to the oceans. 

In its report, In Deep Water, the nongovernmental environmental organisation calls for the reprieve and tighter environmental safeguards against the risks of deep sea mining.

Although the deep sea is not being mined yet, interest in doing so is mounting fast.

Desired resources include cobalt, copper, manganese and lithium for which demand is projected to grow given their key use in the manufacturing of a number of new technologies. 

The agency responsible for regulating deep-sea mining — the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was formed under a UN convention in 1994 — has issued 29 exploration leases covering 1-million square kilometres of the international sea floor. 

The leases have been granted to sponsoring states — including China, the UK, South Korea, Russia, Germany and India — that work with corporate contractors, and have now laid claim to vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

The deep sea is the largest ecosystem on the planet and home to unique creatures that we barely understand. This greedy industry could destroy wonders of the deep ocean before we even have a chance to study them.
Louisa Casson, of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign

No such leases pertain to the SA government or the high seas near SA, but in May the department of international relations & co-operation hosted a workshop on deep sea mining to promote the sustainable development of Africa’s deep seabed resources in support of the continent’s “blue economy”. 

Beyond exploration, before any commercial mining can take place the ISA has to produce a mining code to regulate activities. It aims to finalise this by July 2020,  but progress has been slow. 

Greenpeace has warned that deep-sea mining poses high environmental risks.

“The deep sea is the largest ecosystem on the planet and home to unique creatures that we barely understand,”  said Louisa Casson, of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign.

“This greedy industry could destroy wonders of the deep ocean before we even have a chance to study them.”

Corporates keen on unlocking the mineral wealth of the oceans have argued that the rare minerals extracted from the seabed and used in green technologies will assist in the transition to a decarbonised economy.

Few major mining companies have interests in deep sea mining. Anglo American divested from Nautilus Minerals’ operation in Papua New Guinea in 2018. Nautilus, a Canadian company, has since filed for bankruptcy protection.

But global resources company Glencore has a 2% stake in DeepGreen, another Canadian company and a vocal proponent of deep sea mining. Meanwhile a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the US aerospace and weapons company, has two exploration licences sponsored by the UK.

Governments keen on deep sea mining, such as the EU, have meanwhile emphasised their commitment to “environmentally sound” deep sea mining.

‘Siding with development’

But in its report, Greenpeace cites research findings that managing the risks of commercial deep sea mining is financially and ecologically impossible. The organisation said the status quo of ocean governance has already demonstrated it is incapable of protecting the oceans for future generations. 

The report also criticised the ISA for “consistently siding with development of deep sea mining over marine protection” and noted the agency is yet to turn down a licence application, “even to explore places of high ecological significance like the Lost City [a field of hydrothermal vents] near the mid-Atlantic ridge … which meets the criteria for Unesco world heritage status”.

In the report, Greenpeace made two recommendations:

  • A network of marine reserves covering at least 30% of the world’s oceans, and where all extractive activity is prohibited, should be established by 2030;
  • Governments should agree to a strong global ocean treaty in 2020 (it is under negotiation at the UN) that allows for these reserves, and create rules and standards to protect marine life from mining.

Since the Greenpeace report was embargoed on Tuesday, the ISA said it cannot comment on a document it has not yet seen.

steynl@businesslive.co.za