Deep Sea Mining, Part 3: Awash in Sustainability-Speak

In our in-depth 4-part series, we explore the implications of deep-sea mining – where the drive to mine our ocean depths is coming from, what those effects are, what areas of the ocean are being explored, and where to go from here.

(See list of all articles below.)

Where To From Here?

The Where, The Who, The Why

In part 2 of our series, we saw that the effects of deep-sea rare metal and mineral extraction on our oceans, and consequently the planet upon which we live, would be frankly catastrophic. In this third segment, we explore which parts of our oceans are under threat, who is responsible, and why the drive is so high to commence full-force mining at sea-floor depths.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) is the main area allocated for both exploration and eventual deep-sea mining. Located in the central Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii, it’s an area that spans 4.5 million square kilometres (1.7 million square miles). It’s as wide as the entire continental United States so… it’s huge. Lying outside national jurisdiction, it’s regulated by the U.N. International Seabed Authority (ISA). The area is richer in manganese, nickel, and cobalt than “…all the known land-based reserves combined”.

A map of the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the central Pacific Ocean (adapted from the International Seabed Authority, 2018). Coloured areas are those licensed for mining and shaded squares are areas currently protected from mining.

Given that mineral (and other) resources in international waters, including the ocean-floor, are legally defined under U.N. law as common heritage, the so-called ‘benefits’ of deep-sea mining should be shared among all nation states, not just those sponsoring or supporting mining corporations. This remains a contentious issue.

In the Pacific’s CCZ region, the ISA has entered into over 30 contracts of 15-year duration with 22 deep-sea mining contractors, for exploration of polymetallic nodules. These contracts for specific exploration areas extend across seabeds of approximately 1 million square kilometres (400,000 square miles). While ‘mining’ per se has not yet begun, desecration of huge areas of ocean floor in the name of ‘exploration’ is already in progress.

Polymetallic nodules on the sea floor
Photo credit

Other areas also under exploration include the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. Polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts are also in high demand, though found unevenly distributed in all oceans. They are much higher in desired minerals—such as copper, nickel, and cobalt—than any land deposits. What’s more, land-based exploitation of these minerals is considered complex and costly, with the countries with the most resources dominating access (for example, China for rare earth elements and the Democratic Republic of Congo for cobalt).

The pro-mining movement claims deep-sea mining will help mitigate current climate issues by creating more ‘green technology’. But with the murky history of mining bad behaviour, it’s unlikely this is anything other than more short-sighted greenwash to lubricate a swift deal.

Photo of a black Tesla car in front of a Tesla sign
Photo by Beat Jau on Unsplash

In a statement issued to Greenpeace in December, 2020, Pete Ruddock of UK Seabed Resources said:

Seabed minerals have a potentially critical role to play in the decarbonisation of the planet by providing a vital and reliable alternative source of critical minerals for, among other things, clean energy including battery technologies. We intend to continue to work towards the realisation of this potential opportunity with our valued stakeholders and partners.

Impending world population increase and the demand for more natural resources, especially from developing nations where new markets are opening up due to ‘smart’ technologies, means mining companies are pushing harder than ever to gain access to our oceans. It’s a lofty assumption that permanent and ongoing consumerism (and its cousin, expanding economic growth) can be perpetually sustained based on our current exploitative and exhaustive model.

Photo by Beat Jau on Unsplash

Scientists and other parties are insisting on further investigation into the planetary cost of deep-sea extractivism, to which backlash is coming from some quarters. It appears that the aim is to push directly through to fully-fledged mining, regardless of the recommendations and laws that have emerged from these essential ecological considerations. Increasingly aggressive positioning by mining companies has been exacerbated by the global disruption and resulting delays from Covid-19.

Massive machinery used for deep sea mining
Image credit:

Gerard Barron, chairman and CEO of DeepGreen Metals, has threatened to trigger an ISA rule that would allow mining to start in two years regardless of ISA’s progress on regulating exploitation. There is concern that other companies may follow, opening up our oceans to the largest unregulated extractive project in history.  

In late June 2021, President Lionel Aingimea of Nauru, the third smallest country in the world, (spanning a mere 21 kms, or 13 miles, and located 300 km, or 186 miles, from its closest island neighbour in the Central Pacific), notified the ISA of its support for the plan for deep-sea mining to commence within 2 years of the date of the letter (June 30), regardless of laws in or not in place, and research completed or not completed by that time. Nauru is a sponsor-state of the Nauru Ocean Resources Inc, a subsidiary of The Metals Co. (formerly DeepGreen Metals). This kind of Wild West outlaw behaviour on behalf of both mining corporations and the nation states that sponsor them, is not only short-sighted and foolhardy, but throws into question the very survival of our planet.

Aerial photo of island of Nauru
Island of Nauru. Image credit:

The deep sea is regarded as ‘untapped potential’ which could be mined in an ‘environmentally sustainable’ way. Given the evidence of how any such disruption would lead to ecosystem collapse and the eventual death of our species, it’s difficult to take this kind of green jargon seriously. The ongoing and expansive demands, however, for more products by more people around the globe—including developing nations understandably desiring to develop and change their personal circumstances (think cryptocurrency markets and access to financial resources for the unbanked)—is testament to the apparent ‘why’ of needing more materials to anticipate and satisfy such demands.

It makes sense to explore this untapped potential in an environmentally sustainable way instead of continually looking at the fast depleting land resources of the planet to meet society’s rising needs…”

~ Mike Johnston, CEO of Nautilus Minerals

Conversely, the obvious result of us not having a habitable planet to live on, indicates just how drastically we must change our behaviours and basic habits of consumption. Ultimately, we’re all responsible for the state of the world. If we believe the sustainability-speak of major organisations with hooded agendas, and blindly assume ‘they’ve got it covered,’ unfortunately we will all too soon discover that what’s dressed up as a sustainability lamb is likely just a nasty old legacy wolf.

Aggressive wolf bearing its teeth

Seabed 2030 was announced as one of the first Actions of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission – the “Ocean Decade”. Seabed 2030 is a collaboration between GEBCO and the Japanese firm Nippon. Together they’re mapping, in high resolution, 100% of the ocean floor, creating a central database of all bathymetric information. While ostensibly an initiative to celebrate and preserve our oceans (released in time for World Oceans Day), it sounds worryingly like a free pass to gather valuable mining data, under the overarching green guise of ‘ocean knowledge for sustainable development.’

High Resolution map of the ocean floor
Image credit:

Greed-driven thinking that ignores the destruction of deep-sea ecosystems, and clearly spells disaster for the planet and humankind, is bizarre. It cannot be ‘the final frontier.’ It is our personal and planetary responsibility to address, in our daily lives, what paradigm shifts we can exercise en masse, in order to:

  • Change our thinking and ideas
  • Change our beliefs and expectations
  • Change our actions
  • Restore our planet to health

We are far more than ‘consumers’.

In the final installment of this 4-part series Deep Sea Mining, Part 4: The Eco-centric Response, we explore how we must alter our behaviour in order to preserve life on the planet.

*  *  *

The Miner Network is Changing the Face of Mining

With the clear intention to improve existing land mining practices – via regenerative processes, chemical-free processing, and fair labour contracts and working conditions, Miner is changing the face of mining.

Learn about The Miner Pledge here.

We invite leaders across the global mining industry to join us in proactively taking mature steps towards planet preservation.

Collaborate with us to begin a mining narrative that transcends the exploitative thinking that brought us to this teetering precipice. Let’s find our way together to a new (and ancient) paradigm—what author and activist John Perkins calls “moving away from a Death Economy to a Life Economy.” It can be done.

JOIN The Miner Network mailing list and stay informed of the upcoming launch of MINER token.

~ Abheeti Kathryn Pass


Here are the other installments in the series:

Deep-Sea Mining, Part 1: A Shining Example of Misguided Human Ingenuity

Metal-Minded Humans’ Drive for More


Deep Sea Mining, Part 2: The Next Frontier, or the Ultimate Suicide Mission?

Mining Effects on Ecosystems and the Earth


Deep Sea Mining, Part 4: The Eco-centric Response

Where To From Here? (to be published next week)