Deep Sea Mining for EV Metals Could Kick Off Soon Thanks to Regulatory Loophole
A gilded Pandora’s box awaits miners at the bottom of the sea where polymetallic nodules rich in nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper are abound. Despite us not knowing yet how much damage deep sea mining for EV metals can do, operations could start by 2024 given a loophole in the regulations meant to protect the ocean floor.
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At the forefront of this rush under the sea is the Metals Company, a Canada-based miner that says deep sea mining is preferable to mining on land. TMC insists deep sea mining will do less damage to the planet, and CEO Gerard Barron touts the millions of dollars his company has spent on “ocean science,” as Wired reports.
But the scientific community disagrees, as well as many major corporations including BMW, Microsoft, Google, Volvo, and Volkswagen. Even Aquaman himself (fine, it’s just Jason Momoa) spoke out against the practice. And when that many megacorps and comic book characters are waving red flags, maybe, just maybe, it’s time to reconsider.
Deep sea mining is currently forbidden by international law, but TMC and Barron are eager to begin dredging up nodes by late 2024. The company is using a “two-year trigger” found in a treaty written by the International Seabed Authority, the regulatory body tasked with protecting the Earth’s seabed while simultaneously overseeing its “commercial exploitation,” as Wired lays out:
The mining ban has a loophole: the two-year trigger. A section of the treaty known as Paragraph 15 states that if any member country formally notifies the Seabed Authority that it wants to start sea mining in international waters, the organization will have two years to adopt full regulations. If it fails to do so, the treaty says the ISA “shall none the less consider and provisionally approve such plan of work.” This text is commonly interpreted to mean mining must be allowed to go ahead, even in the absence of full regulations.
The Metals Company partnered with the South Pacific island nation of Nauru to get around the deep sea mining ban. Nauru’s president notified the Seabed Authority in 2021 that the country planned to start mining. The small island nation has a history of being exploited by developed countries, going from a “tropical paradise” to a barren, strip-mined shell of its idyllic self. After a stint as an offshore banking haven, per Wired, Nauru shuttered its banking practices because of all the questionable monies flooding in. But it seems like the Metals Company is just the latest interested party in a succession of suspicious parties.
To be fair, Nauru has much to gain if the partnership pans out. And Barron insists TMC didn’t trigger the obscure two-year process to get around the deep sea mining ban, saying “Well, Nauru did. We didn’t. Nauru did.” That reads like a deflection, or at least a technically correct tautology. The best kind. It bears mentioning that Nauru’s mining company, dubbed Nauru Ocean Resources, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Metals Company. Potato, potato.
It’s worth reading the exhaustive report from Wired, as it explains the latest renewed interest in deep sea mining (which traces back to 1873, but fizzled out a century later), as well as Nauru’s history and the legal subterfuge at work to accelerate mining for polymetallic nodules around the world. TMC is not the only company after the untapped riches waiting at the bottom of the sea, but it’s certainly trying to be the first to dive for the so-called “batteries in a rock.”
TMC could be given permission to start mining in the Pacific for nodules within a year or so, although the company is being accused of rushing the research to determine the effects of deep sea mining, as well as allegedly holding unfair leverage over its partners for the purposes of getting permission to mine first. The company estimates that the parcels of seabed it currently holds the rights to eventually mine could yield $31 billion in EV metals.
Scientists say the risks of deep sea mining could be too great, that mining may have irreversible effects ranging from pollution to the destruction of ecosystems we know little about to hampering the ocean’s ability to capture carbon. But microplastics and overfishing be damned. There are EV rocks down there!
Scientists are now calling for a moratorium on deep sea mining until we can understand how it will affect our oceans. The scientific community says we’ll know more by 2028, but mining could start long before then. Look, the nodules have been down there for millions of years. What’s another five?
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