Deep-Sea Mining: An Introductory Webinar
Treasures of the deep: life and rocks was a deep-sea mining webinar held on the 12th January 2021, co-hosted by Whale Wise, DOSI and the University of Edinburgh, in partnership with iAtlantic, One Ocean Hub and ATLAS. Moderated by Professor Murray Roberts, the webinar sought to bring the issue of deep-sea mining for minerals to public consciousness through introducing the process, laws and reasoning behind such activities, as well as considering the likely impacts from both an ecological and societal perspective. Furthermore, by convening a panel of experts with broad skills, knowledge and opinions, this webinar addresses the question of whether deep-sea mining is truly necessary, and at what cost. A transcript of the webinar is available below, please note that square brackets indicates uncertainty in transcribed response.
Transcript of Treasures of the deep: life and rocks webinar on deep-sea mining
Murray Roberts – Introduction
So, thinking back to deep-sea nodules – Manganese nodules were discovered in the 1870s during the Challenger Expedition, led by Charles Wyville Thomson from the University of Edinburgh. Since then, people were aware of the potential for deep-sea mining (DSM), but nothing had been developed. I was reading a 1972 report of the 100th anniversary conference of the Challenger expedition, a meeting that was held in Edinburgh in 1972. Jay Robert Moore from the University of Wisconsin made some predictions of profitable mining from the Pacific of deep-sea manganese nodules by 1975. A lot has happened since 1975, but the exploitation of deep-sea minerals has not yet started. We are now seeing DSM as a fascinating and highly important geopolitical issue, that may be at the nexus of many important issues that society has to grapple with. Is it something that might help societies move to a low-carbon sustainable future? Are deep-sea minerals essential in the technologies required for a massive reinvention of energy supplies? Our webinar today is trying to pull together these issues. In a couple of hours, we cannot run through each issue, but we have a fantastic array of speakers who will consider the issues through different lenses and take different perspectives. We want to have an active discussion about these issues.
Deep-sea mining brings together so many important issues. In areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), these resources are managed for the common heritage of humankind, through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). There are issues around the governance and the details of how that common heritage will be secured, versus the values and importance of the ecosystems within which these minerals are found. There have recently been calls (in the last 10 years) for a moratorium on DSM while the scientific community gathers evidence and better understanding of the deep ocean. So, as we enter the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, it is fantastic, so early in 2021, to pause and reflect on these issues and reiterate, from all perspectives.
So, with that preamble, let me tell you how things are going to run in this webinar. I think many people listening are very familiar with webinars by now, so I want to warn you that the webinar this evening is being recorded. All the speakers know this. I will be inviting questions with the question and answer (Q&A) box please. So, when we are listening to the webinar, and if a speaker raises a topic you want to follow up with a question, please go ahead and use the Q&A box, send your questions and we will work our way through and answer as many questions as we can manage. You can make yourself anonymous when you ask that question. I am sorry to say that Clement Yow Mulalap is no longer available to give his presentation on indigenous rights, but we are hoping we may get a video that we can share with you later, on that really important issue. Please also use the chat function in the webinar if you want to introduce yourself, say who you are and what your interest in this issue is. You may well establish connections to people on this webinar that you know, or you may meet new people through that interface.
What we are going to do shortly is launch a poll, and that poll will give you a few questions. Some of the questions we will come back to at the end of the webinar, so we can get your perspectives before the webinar starts and at the end of the webinar. I think it is an appropriate time, if I can ask the organisers to put the poll up on the screen and then we will give you 30-45 second to answer questions … I hope that was enough time to answer poll questions, so we can close the poll now.
I am now going to move on to our first speaker this evening. It is a great pleasure to introduce you to Daniela Yepes Gaurisas, who will introduce life in the deep sea. Daniela is a deep-sea ecologist, originally from Colombia, and she is now completing a PhD at the Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo, Brazil. Her thesis is entitled ‘climate change impacts on deep sea benthic assemblages in the Atlantic Ocean’. As the coordinator of iAtlantic, I am absolutely delighted and honoured that Daniela is an iAtlantic fellow.
[00:03:48] Daniela Yepes Gaurisas, Life in the Deep Sea
Thank you, Professor Murray. Hello, good afternoon, good evening. So, let’s talk about life in the deep sea.
[slide 2] The Earth is the only known planet in the solar system with liquid water on its surface, and 2/3 of corresponds to water with more than 3000 m depth, but most is still unexplored. So, the deep sea is the largest and least explored habitat on Earth. It took a long time for researchers to believe that life could exist on the sea floor, because this environment has conditions that are very different from other terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
[slide 3] So what is the deep blue like? The deep sea is a harsh environment. It is a world without sunlight with freezing and higher temperature, extremely high pressures, low oxygen levels, and scarce food. However, oceanographic expeditions using new technologies in deep waters have discovered that the fauna that lives there is completely amazing, with hotspots of biodiversity that are still largely unexplored.
[slide 4] This high biodiversity is because of the unique physical and geological characteristics of the seafloor and the water column that provide different habitats with different animal communities. Extraordinary benthic ecosystems such as thermal vents, cold seeps, abyssal plains and biodiversity hotspots such as seamounts, cold-water corals and canyons. All these ecosystems and their fauna play a key role in regulating the climate on Earth, making the planet habitable for us. Also, they provide us with food and genetic resources, providing enormous potential for human benefit, in scientific research and bioprospecting. The natural compounds are extracted from marine organisms or microorganisms to produce pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, healthcare products and other chemicals.
[slide 5]. What is hiding in these deep-sea ecosystems? The deep sea starts around 200 m below the surface of the ocean, when the sunlight starts to fade. The temperature is not too cold here and there Is some light available for photosynthesis. In the mesopelagic zone, or twilight zone, we can see many commercial fishes and other organisms, a lot of invertebrates, and some mammals and turtles can swim up to 1000 m depth. In this zone, in 1000 m depth, the complete darkness starts Without sunlight, there is no photosynthesis and the animals depend mostly on the quantity and quality of food that is produced in the surface and descends to the sea floor. In the water column, depth, penetration of light and temperature will determine the diversity and [composition] of the fauna. So, as we go deeper into the ocean, the fauna is changing from colourful organisms to bioluminescent organisms that produce light in a form for communication with other animals. They emit light to find food, attract prey, find a mate and hide from predators. Some fishes have big eyes, such as a viper fish, and large teeth and [stomach to secure food for several days]. Other organisms have jelly-like bodies to resist high pressures, such as some sea cucumbers, jellyfishes, octopuses and some fishes.
[slide 6] On the seafloor, benthic organisms are also waiting for some pieces of food. So, living on the bottom is in slow motion. The benthic community is mostly determined by strong food limitation so that is why the organisms have a slow metabolism and growth, but a long life. Benthic organisms are closely linked with the sediments and any disturbance of it will affect their survival. Corals, starfishes, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and other organisms live on the sediment, and macro and meiofauna is hide inside the sediment. We cannot see some with a naked eye because they are so tiny, but in these groups, we can see [thanidasians], nematodes, polychaetes and other crustaceans. They have very small bodies, but they are very sensitive and some (such as polychaetes) have big jaws to catch prey. In one square metre, we can find 400 different species of these groups. These little animals constitute the majority of the deep-sea life. Also inside the sediment are bacteria and other microorganisms. So, ecosystems on abyssal plains are not really deserts of life because even the benthic fauna [is diverse].
Some of the most important ecosystems in the sea bottom are reducing or extreme ecosystems, such as hydrothermal vents and cold seeps. They are the exception to food limitation in the bottom of the sea because, here, bacteria play the key role of primary producers, transforming the chemicals into food. In these ecosystems, biodiversity is low and communities are dominated by a few unique or endemic species, such as tube worms, yeti crabs, some molluscs, but in great abundance.
[slide 7] These extreme ecosystems, together with seamounts and other environments altered by volcanic and tectonic processes, are of interest for researchers and industry. They provide a structure and a good food supply for some animals to live on and have special geological characteristics such as the presence of minerals. While hydrothermal vents are like underwater geysers spilling hot and super toxic fluids and supporting fauna with incredible adaptations, seamounts are underwater islands isolated from other deep-sea ecosystems that support high biodiversity, being called oases of sea life. Both ecosystems are home to many endemic species that are not found on any other ecosystem on earth and depend on these environments to survive.
[slide 8, video] To finish, I want to highlight that we do not know much of the diversity hiding in the ocean and threats such as climate change and anthropogenic disturbance are impacting the ocean, making it warmer, more acidic, less oxygenated. These are affecting the important fauna of the deep sea and the important resources that the ocean provides us.
I am grateful to be here for this webinar, it will be very productive and informative for all of us.
Daniela, thanks so much for that lovely introduction to life in the deep sea and for showing us so many beautiful images. During the webinar, please do send questions, we have set aside a minute or so after each speaker. We have also set aside 30 minutes at the end of the webinar for a discussion. So, if you are still thinking of questions, do not hold back and send them into the question box. Daniela, I will let you know if we have any questions for you. But for now, I will move on from that basic introduction to life in the deep sea to actually think about what DSM is and what it might entail. It is my pleasure to introduce Samantha Smith, who will introduce the topic of DSM to us today. Sam has a PhD from the University of Bristol and has worked on the environmental aspects of DSM for the last 15 years. She is based in Canada and is currently head of sustainability at Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR). She is also director of Blue Globe Solutions, a company focused on sustainable solutions and the responsible use of the oceans. Sam, without further ado, I will pass the microphone to you.
[00:14:12] Samantha Smith, Deep-Sea Mining Introduction
[slide 1] Thanks Murray for the introduction and thanks everyone for joining us today.
[slide 2] To begin, let’s take a moment to consider the supply and demand of critical metals that we’re currently facing. I will start by talking about our growing global population and increased urbanisation. Over the next 30 years, the global population is set to expand by 2 billion people. The UN’s projected rates of urban population growth requires the equivalent of a city the size of New York to be built every 11 weeks between now and the end of the century. That is a phenomenal task ahead of us and will put huge strain on the mineral resources that we extract from our earth. Both infrastructure and clean energy technologies are metal intensive. In particular, we need metals such as nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper. Without a doubt, recycling has a critical role to play in meeting future metal demand. Unfortunately, as it stands right now, recycling alone is not enough to bridge the supply gap for many decades to come. Part of the reason for this is that metals found in infrastructure do not become available for some time – in the case of offshore wind turbines, for up to 30 years. So, an offshore wind turbine built today with these metals would not have those metals available again for 30 years, until 2051. Additionally, modern engineering leads to more challenging product disassembly, meaning that it is hard to get products out. Products have not been typically designed thinking they will be recycled. This is changing but in the past was not the case. Also, it is not easy to extract the specific metal we need. The projections tell us that we will need new sources of metal. And here we have choices to make. We can keep looking on land, but we have to take a moment and ask ourselves: is that the most environmentally and socially responsible approach, and could there be another way?
[slide 3] We all know that we live on the blue planet, and it is blue because 70% is covered by water, as Daniela just mentioned. Historically, mining has focused on the other 30% of the planet, made up by land. Another way to look at it: mining today is focused on the rare part of our planet, the part we live on, giving rise to land-use conflicts and a multitude of other issues. Often, rainforests have to be cleared, mountains flattened, communities displaced and large amounts of waste, much of it toxic, generated. Whether we like it or not, obtaining resources from our planet involves impact and choices. We need, and my call is, to think about our planet and its resources holistically – not land vs sea, but what is best for our planet as a whole – and make choices accordingly. You will hear in other talks about different types of deep-sea mineral resources and there are three main types. Each has their own description, characteristics and environmental issues. This talk focuses on polymetallic nodules, which sit unattached on the bottom of the sea floor. They cover extensive areas of the ocean’s abyssal plain and they are rich in the exact metals we need for clean energy technology – nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper.
[slide 4] The highest known concentrations of polymetallic nodules are found in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), which is located between Hawaii and Mexico in the Pacific Ocean, between 4000 and 6000 m water depth. The governing body for seabed minerals in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) is the International Seabed Authority (ISA), established through UNCLOS and the 1994 implementing agreement. The ISA is comprised of 167 member states and the EU. To date, only mineral exploration contracts have been issued. No mining has begun and no mining contract applications are currently underway – the deep-sea minerals sector is in a research phase. They are focused on getting the science right so we can make informed, science-based decisions about the appropriate way forward.
[slide 5] there is much interest in CCZ nodules because they contain more nickel, more cobalt and more manganese than the entire terrestrial [reserve face] for those metals. Additionally, intuitively, there appear to be a number of environmental and social advantages compared to land based alternatives, such as no deforestation and no social displacement.
[slide 6] This slide is just a reminder, and Murray alluded to it earlier, that seabed mining is not an entirely new idea. During the 1970s, four consortia spent a combined equivalent of about $1 billion in today’s money to study and recover polymetallic nodules and process them from the CCZ. Over 1500 tons of nodules were successfully recovered and metal cathodes were produced. At the time, there was no clear way to obtain an exploration permit, and this impeded further advancement at that time. Since then, the ISA has been established and the mining code has been some 26 years in the making.
[slide 7] Now flipping to modern day, this slide shows an overview of GSR’s proposed mining system, which is comprised of four key components. Starting at the sea floor, you have harvesting units that collect nodules and separate them from the surrounding sediment. Nodules are transported through a vertical transport system (riser) to a surface vessel. On the surface vessel, the nodules are separated from the seawater. The nodules then go on to a bulk carrier for transport and the seafloor that has been removed then needs to be returned to the ocean at some depth. In GSR’s case, we have committed to this discharge depth being no shallower than 2000 m water depth, and possibly back down to the seafloor. The environmental impact assessment we are undertaking will elucidate the most environmentally appropriate depth for discharge within input from the scientific community.
[slide 8] This is an artist’s impression also of the land-based plant on the right, and you can now more easily see some of the monitoring equipment that will be in place during the mining operation, including autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and a series of moored oceanographic equipment.
[slide 9] The current focus of GSR is the development of the harvesting unit technology, which includes hydraulic nodule collectors mounted on a tracked undercarriage. GSR is taking is step-by-step approach to project development and is currently focused on delivering a successful deep-sea trial of its pre-prototype nodule collector, which is expected to occur in the first half of this year. This vehicle is known as Patania II. Previously, in 2017, GSR successfully trialled a tracked soil testing device to test and improve manoeuvrability and trafficability. This little machine, called Patania I did not collect any nodules, it simply we drove around on the seafloor. In 2021, GSR will trial a bigger vehicle which will drive around on the seafloor and collect nodules, and then the nodule collection system will be tested. The 2021 trial will not yet entail a riser to bring nodules to the surface. Later, GSR will test a prototype commercial-scale nodule collector called Patania III, which will have a riser to bring nodules from the seafloor to the surface vessel. The idea behind the step-by-step process is, a little bit of a time, to learn and improve each time we go out, eventually coming up with a final design. Environmental monitoring is an integral part of this programme, and the results of all these trials will be written up in the environmental impact statement for full-scale operations which will be made public.
[slide 10] All these trials I have mentioned will undergo environmental monitoring and, for Patania II, GSR has agreed that a consortium of independent scientists will monitor the upcoming Patania II trial. The knowledge gained will be incorporated into the next phase of design and the Patania III trial will be similarly monitored.
[slide 11] This slide just summarises GSR’s approach to environmental management, containing several pillars. An important point is that we are partnering with the scientific community to ensure decisions are made based on the best science possible and that partner scientists are free to publish their findings. Getting the science right is critical, we cannot make decisions based on guesses or emotions, we must have the facts. GSR is committed to the highest standards in science, engineering and transparent communication, while maintaining a focus on maintain the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
[slide 12] I will just say here (cannot go through each of these at the moment) – a lot of thought does go into reducing environmental effects. With some ideas listed here, there are many more than this. This is part of the programme and development right from the start and all the way through.
[slide 13] I will leave you here with a summary slide, just that the world demand for metals is rising and new solutions must be explored. Polymetallic nodules can help diversify the world’s supply. A precautionary approach is needed to make sure that we are carrying out the science engineering impact analysis in the most appropriate and responsible way possible. Commitment to the highest standards in science, engineering and transparent communication is essential, as is our partnership to achieve the goals. An important point is that DSM is not a fait accompli. The research currently being undertaken is about keeping an option open. My last point is that never in history has so much pre-thought gone into regulating an industry that does not yet exist. Thank you so much for your time.
Thanks, Sam, for that presentation. While you were speaking, many questions have been coming in. I just wanted to let all panellists know that you can answer questions directed at you in the Q&A box. I think it would be a good idea to do that, given the number of questions coming in, as we may struggle to get through them all in that final discussion section. And I also wanted to say how exciting it is to see people genuinely from every corner of our planet. I am seeing people from the Cook Islands, across Europe, from across North and South America. Even closer to home, the western islands of Scotland. It is wonderful to see you all. Please let’s move to our next speaker, Pradeep Singh, who will outline regulation of the DSM, with particular focus on the ISA, which you heard introduced by Sam in her presentation. Pradeep is a research associate for the Institute of Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, and a PhD candidate at the University of Bremen. Pradeep’s expertise lies in ocean policy. His current project of focus is ‘deep-sea mining: test mining and fair benefit sharing’. I am also delighted to say that Pradeep is an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh. Pradeep, over to you.
[00:30:08] Pradeep A. Singh – Deep-Sea Mining, Regulatory Framework
[slide 2] Thank you very much Murray. It is a pleasure to speak here today, especially because I first learned about DSM while I was a student at the University of Edinburgh, so really happy to be here. In his introduction, Murray told us that it was about 1870 when we first discovered deep-sea mineral resources, polymetallic nodules in this case as Samantha took us through it. However, it was only in the 1960s that we first had global attention towards commercializing these resources, with a book by John Mero in 1965. So, when we talk about DSM, it involves the exploration, but especially the eventual exploitation, of mineral resources, looking at depths of more than 200 m onwards. One thing to note: DSM can take place in areas located within national jurisdiction (NJ), as well as beyond national jurisdiction (BNJ), i.e., the international seabed, which is known as the Area. If we are talking about mining within NJ, coastal states have sovereign rights over these resources, but when we’re talking about BNJ, then there’s no sovereignty for any particular state. Instead, access is only through the International Seabed Authority, or ISA. As Samantha mentioned, exploitation is yet to take place on a commercial scale anywhere, both within and beyond national jurisdiction. So today I will focus on the mineral resources of the Area and the work of the ISA.
[slide 3] Just to give you an understanding of the maritime zones and where the Area is, as you can see in the bottom right of the diagram, it starts where sovereign rights of coastal states end. The Area is basically where the ISA has jurisdiction.
[slide 4] Again, coming back to 1965 and when this book was first published, this created a very nervous febrile atmosphere among international actors. This is after the Second World War and post-colonisation era, so there were many new independent states, and they were underdeveloped and very interested in these resources. Of course, their concern that only a few industrialised states would be able to get a profit from them. So, this led to a famous speech in 1967 by an ambassador from Malta, basically imploring the international community to declare these resources beyond national jurisdiction as a matter of common interest. This was taken up at the UN General Assembly in 1970. We had a resolution declaring these resources to be the common heritage of mankind, to be administered by international regime and, at the same time, decided that an intergovernmental conference will be convened to negotiate a binding instrument to give legal effect to this understanding. Premised on negotiations that started since 1973, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted in 1982, so this is either LOSC, UNCLOS or the Convention, which Murray alluded to in his introduction.
In this convention, there is a dedicated section for the Area and mineral resources, basically called part 11 of the convention. This part established the ISA, which is now based in Kingston, Jamaica, and it provided a regulatory framework for mining activities to take place in the Area. What is important to note is that UNCLOS was not entered forth immediately after it was adopted. There was resistance that mostly came from developed and large developing economies. The main disagreement of these actors was on part 11. There was a lot of disagreement on DSM in the Area and this required further negotiations. Some concessions had to come from developing countries and, eventually, in 1994, we had an agreement to implement part 11 of the convention, which modifies and to some extent weakened certain parts of part 11 in UNCLOS. But this eventually paved the way for the whole convention to receive overwhelming support and come into force, from which the ISA was born.
[slide 5] Now what does UNCLOS actually say about DSM? It declared under article 136 that these resources are common heritage of mankind. Article 137 amplified it and states that no state can claim sovereignty over these resources. Article 140(1) says that mining should be carried out for the benefit of mankind as a whole. Article 140(2) says that whatever financial and economic benefits that come from it shall be shared equitably. And importantly article 145 says that necessary measures must be taken to ensure effective protection of the marine environment from the harmful effects of mining.
[slide 6] Now how does it all work? The ISA is an international organisation, made up of all contracting parties, which as Samantha mentioned is 167 countries and the EU. The main responsibility of the ISA is to design a system to allow the exploration and exploitation of resources, basically to develop specific rules, regulations and procedures. You will remember that the Convention only gives the regulatory framework, and the ISA then develops specific rules and regulations. ISA is also required to adopt necessary measures to ensure effective protection of the marine environment. ISA will also consider and approve individual applications for mining activities. The ISA is also trusted to determine financial terms for contractors – how much contractors will need to pay into the ISA for mining contracts – and to then collect payments from contractors. With this money, the ISA has to establish a benefit sharing or equitable distribution mechanism to distribute the money. Interestingly, it also has to provide a system of compensation to developing countries, whose economies are dependent on terrestrial mining and could suffer adverse impacts due to DSM. Basically, they must be compensated for their losses that affect the economy due to DSM. I would say it’s also required to supervise and ensure compliance by contractors, as well as to promote marine scientific research, technology transfer and capacity building.
Up until today, there have been some 30 exploration contracts have been awarded, one more in the pipe has just been approved last months, and the contract will presumably be signed soon. Whereas regulations to enable exploitation, as Samantha mentioned, are not yet enforced, they are currently under negotiation and have not been finalised yet.
[slide 7] Now just to put it all together, to say what the ISA is. There are three primary organs: the assembly, the council and the secretariat. The assembly is where all the contracting parties are represented. 167 countries are there, they each have one vote and they basically determine or finalise the rules, regulations and procedures of the entire ISA. But they have to do this based on the recommendations of the council. The council is comprised of only 36 member states, which are elected by the assembly, and they are divided into certain groups – for example, states that are invested in DSM, states that are importers of commodities that come from DSM, and states that are exporters of commodities they take from terrestrial sources, [as well as equitable geographic distribution]. Then there is the legal and technical commission that provides advice to the council. This is basically the expert body that advises the council.
[slide 8] Who can mine? You would, of course, need prior approval from the ISA to explore first and then exploit. Applicants can determine where and what resource type they want to apply for, but some areas are reserved for developing states. If you intend to apply for a mining contract, it is open to all members states of the convention and the enterprise, which is not yet in operation. It is also open to single enterprises and private entities, provided they are sponsored by a member state. Member states can sponsor their own nationals as well as foreign nationals. It is important to note that both elements (ISA approval and state sponsorship) need to be met. Liability and enforcement, especially for environmental harm, are possible under international law, so states and sponsoring states that engage in mining, and under domestic law, so contractors can be responsible there.
[slide 9] I can see that Murray is already here, so I will quickly conclude. The ocean and its problems are interconnected and this was already known in 1982 because this is stated in the preamble of the Convention. UNCLOS needs to be integrated with other related development such as the SDGs as Samantha brought up, as well as the interest of future generations. Recently, the UN Secretary General said that the threats to the oceans are unprecedented. Once commercial-scale exploitation starts, the oceans will be susceptible to increased pressure. Now, there are problems with the ISA and how it is being done at the moment, and these need to be addressed quite soon. From an institutional perspective, assembly meetings are poorly attended. Of more than 160 countries, fewer than 80 tend to show up for meetings. Decision-making in council is 36 members and, even within that, their votes are divided by groups. It tends to lean towards mining, the main expert body lacks specific expertise (particularly environmental expertise) and there are questions of transparency. For scientific and environmental aspects, there are many uncertainties of the scale of harm. Countries are yet to agree on serious harm, so the threshold at which mining cannot happen. There are also lacks some precautionary and adaptive approaches, and these need to be improved so that the regulator can intervene. From a regulatory perspective, ISA is over-reliant on contractors and needs to be more proactive. The financial model that is currently being designed is perhaps on the side of attracting contractors or incentivising mining, and there is basically no full clarity on what sponsor states have to do and what active control actually means.
I will end with the statement that the Area and its mineral resources are the common heritage of mankind and, at this point in time, member states need to look into the legitimacy of this activity – not the legality, but the legitimacy – and ask if mining can be conducted for the benefit of mankind as a whole. If the answer is yes, how do we do that? Thank you very much.
Pradeep, thank you very much for that – a very insightful summary. I am now delighted to introduce you Pippa Howard from Fauna and Flora International (FFI). Pippa will discuss DSM and society. If DSM were to go ahead, would there be benefits to all of humankind and how would the industry be held accountable by the public? I think Pradeep’s overview has really set the context beautifully for this. Pippa has a varied background in biodiversity management, impact assessment, development and sustainability. She is currently director of the Extractives and Development Infrastructure programme at FFI and she was lead author of the recent FFI report, ‘An assessment of the risks and impacts of DSM on marine ecosystems.’ Pippa, over to you
[00:39:09] Pippa Howard – Deep-Sea Mining: Assessing impacts and risks to biodiversity and ecosystem services
[slide 1]: Good evening and thanks very much Murray. I have been asked to look at deep sea mining and the role of society and have found that this is really focused on two current questions which keep popping up. That is around the benefits and who should be held accountable. So, the question that needs to be contextualised in the marine ecosystem, as this is where DSM is proposed. Regardless of if it takes place in national or international waters, it is really important to understand the marine ecosystems and the risks and impacts of DSM to the health of ocean ecosystems and biodiversity in the marine environment.
[slide 2] Briefly, the ocean is a highly connected three-dimensional system – you have seen some of the complexity of biodiversity there already – and it is an ecosystem fundamental to the function of our climate. It maintains the balance of nutrients, oxygen, trace metals, carbon etc. on the planet. It is the extraordinary complex ecological and biochemical functions that regulate these processes, thereby enabling life on earth.
[slide 3] The life forms of biodiversity that are integral to these processes are highly evolved, they are incredibly biodiverse and fundamentally associated with the substrates and geological compounds that are the focus of mining. We know from terrestrial mining that unique biodiversity is associated with unique geochemistry, and the same is true of the oceans. The link between the unique microbes and the fauna of the ocean sediments and substrates such as PMNs are quite simply because their origins are intertwined. They evolved symbiotically, just as clays and corals and hydrocarbons and rare earth minerals evolved from unique past biological and chemical conditions, as have carbonates, so cement and limestone. These are all formed from life forms of past environmental conditions. Also, the most usable forms of minerals come from concentrates, so the deposits and secretions of life forms. So, when thinking about the benefits and accountability, we have to think about the risks and impacts associated with DSM, some of which are shown in these two slides.
[slide 4] The first looks at the complex biodiversity hotspots of seamounts that Daniela showed us pictures of. The second looks at complex benthic ecosystems and the systems functions associated with the abyssal plains and PMN. I am happy to share the link to the report that Murray referred to, which addressed some of these impacts in detail. And we will look later at that in the seminar, so I will go back to the question.
[slide 5] The nature of the question has two parts. Let’s first look at the benefits. We need to look at who owns these resources in the first place, because this is really what should define to whom and how benefits are assigned.
[slide 6] DSM is proposed in national and international waters as we heard, and Pradeep gave a fantastic introduction to that, as did Sam. Those in national waters fall within national laws and regulation, and I will not go into the benefits of these, as they fall within sovereign governance and would likely form part of the same legal premises as terrestrial mining. Most of those benefits seem to go to corporations, regardless of their countries of origin or registration. I am going to focus on the international waters, in what is termed the Area, which is where the biggest threat to our ocean currently lies. Again, thanks to those before me who have explained where and what these are. The important thing here is that this is grouped the commons – what belongs to everyone here on the planet, this common heritage of mankind or humankind. In the last few decades, the notion of common heritage of mankind has attracted considerable attention and generated polemical debate in various international forums. This is especially true of the common heritage of mankind application to the legal status of the resources of these common space areas. Particularly hot in these discussions have been the ocean floor, outer space, the moon, Antarctica etc. One of the central premises of common heritage is that these regions would not be subject to appropriation of any kind (public, national or corporate), and that common space areas be regarded legally as regions owned by no-one but hypothetically managed by everyone, so the benefits would be for everyone and managed by everyone. Sovereignty would be absent, as would all its legal attributes and ramifications. No jurisdictional rights or obligations would exist, and no agent or any authority would exist to enforce such commands in the region. Of course, we have the ISA, which has a very specific remit here, so that bends the rules of what was initially there. Outer space is deemed one of mankind’s common heritages. The joint members of the UN, for example, called for all countries to use outer space for peaceful purposes and advancement of sustainable development. So, there are precedents here too.
[slide 7] Pradeep also talked about UNCLOS, which states very clearly that the seabed requires stewardship for the benefit of all humankind. There are various things he spoke to which would cover what the boundaries of that are. But, critical to some of those mandates, those lines in UNCLOS are about benefits to mankind as a whole and what the authority should be doing around things like marine scientific research and how that can benefit all humankind. We have heard about the role of the ISA, this UN agency, which should be responsible for applying UNCLOS, however it seems that most activity in the ISA has been around enabling mining, and I think that is something Pradeep mentioned too. They defined benefits to humankind as financial gains potentially to be made from exploitation and mining of the deep seabed. They see benefits paid as royalties and taxes to account for the extraordinary responsibility laid out by UNCLOS. If all humankind was to benefit from these activities, what would this look like? What would society do about it? What would be the relative financial benefits that each individual would get relative to the corporate benefits that we know are under the eyes of mining.
[slide 8] The ISA does talk about the benefits to humankind, such as cheaper minerals and access to increased options for sustainable minerals. They talk about scientific research and data. There is a wealth generation for sponsoring states. However, in more than 30 years of operation, the ISA is still slightly murky on this, these things have not been clearly defined and they seem to still be unable to allocate those benefits. Companies involved are currently talking about benefits of DSM too, and they talk about them in terms of sustainable sourcing of minerals and as a solution to our climate change challenges. This is a valid direction of argument, of course, but they also offer an interesting array of social services and subsidies to some of the sponsoring states such as some of the Pacific Islands States. So, these allocations of a few thousand dollars are way more than perhaps to be seen as the benefits to all humankind in the good from actual mining.
[slide 9] In the interests of time, let me briefly go the accountability. Who needs to be held accountable and which part of industry and who will make these decisions?
[slide 10] DSM is about the supply chain of raw materials and infrastructure, so part of the accountability is about society’s role in demanding responsible and sustainable supply chain. This is a market demand, so ultimately society has the power and the influence to do the checks and balances on DSM. This is what moved the International Whaling Commission, for example, and helped to create the Antarctic Convention to reach international agreements, which were for the benefit of humankind and resulted in the moratorium of mineral exploitation in Antarctica. So, how does society ensure responsible supply chains? Through societal pressure, we can hold decision makers to account. As Pradeep pointed out, very few countries are adequately represented in the membership of the ISA. They need to be far more transparent and held accountable to the mandate which they have called to and UNCLOS. We, as members of society, need to call upon our governments, their representatives in the assembly, to the council of the ISA, to consider their mandate and to hold the ISA to account, and to test the legal frameworks that has been set up there, and to call on their national constituencies. We also need to look at other high seas and ocean uses too, to see what they feel and how it will impact their ocean economy. Society really needs to know more about DSM (this seminar is an incredibly important part of that process) and they need to know that in a transparent and honest way. They need to take responsibility for their role in it through changing their own practices and expectations. They need to think carefully about where their raw materials come from. We all need to waste less and understand the implications of our own consumerism. Finally, society really needs to hold to account those who make decisions on their behalf. Thanks Murray and thanks everyone.
Thank you so much Pippa, that came across fantastic. Before we move on, I would like to remind the panellists to look at questions coming in, lots of excellent questions. We will not get through all of them in discussion so if you could type answers to a few of the questions, that would be fantastic. There is also some good commentary in the Q&A. You might pick up on some of the comments that have been targeted to various members of the panel. Our next speaker will be Matthias Haeckel. Matthias will discuss the potential environmental impacts of DSM. Matthias is a research scientist at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany. He has been based there since 2005 but has been working on the impacts of deep-sea resource exploitation for the last 25 years, but particularly the impacts of DSM. Currently, Matthias coordinates the European project MiningImpact, whose results contribute to the negotiation of the ISA’s mining code. Matthias, over to you.
[00:50:25] Matthias Haeckel – Environmental impacts and risks of deep-sea mining
[slide 1] Thank you very much Murray for the introduction. As Murray introduced already, I am the coordinator of a large European project with 30 partner institutions, and we’re looking into the potential environmental impacts and risks of DSM.
[slide 2] To do so, we have focused, in the past five years, on the impacts from PMN mining, because this is potentially the resource that might get exploited first, followed then by massive sulphides and cobalt-rich crusts, which are the other two deep-sea minerals of interest. To summarise what PMN mining would entail, there will be a collector system driving over the seafloor, picking up the nodules. This typically would involve the removal of the nodules plus the upper 10 cm. This is also what the first tests in the labs from GSR have shown and we will see in spring this year how many centimetres this will actually entail. In the deep sea, the first 10 cm of seafloor means we are taking away the entire ecosystem where the larger fauna lives, from meiofauna up to macro and megafauna. Only some of the bacteria will remain below. So, 10 cm is this active layer in the deep sea, on global average we call the bioturbation layer. The second impact is that, just by driving these caterpillar-like machines over the seafloor, a sediment plume will be created. A plume will also be created from the sediments that will be separated from the nodules already from the mining itself, because you do not want to carry this additional weight to the sea surface and then transport to land. Further cleaning will probably take place on these surface infrastructures and vessels, and this waste plume has to be reinjected. We have already shown in scientific projects more than 20 years ago that this return water plume should be injected as close to the seafloor as possible to minimise the spread through the ocean. There have been some modelling exercises on that in the past 20-30 years and they showed that, but colleagues are also looking with more modern numerical models again. So, these will be the main impacts and the sediment plume, return water plume or the one created directly by the machine on the seafloor will drift with a slow bottom current and settle on areas outside the mined area. For PMN mines, for economic reasons, the mining area per year per contractor, or per operation, is expected to be something like 200-300 km2. These are large areas – the size of Munich (Germany) is about 200 km2, so per area of operation per year, this kind of impact area where the fauna plus nodules are removed. The sediment plume dispersal, currently predicted by numerical modelling because we have not been able to follow up tests so far, will be observed in spring this year with GSR’s tests. We expect that the mining plume will create an impact area that can be something like 2-5 times larger than this, so closer to something like 1000 km2 per year per operation. The only larger impact we do on that size is tree cutting of rainforests. In these impacted areas, we will have loss of habitat, loss of species and genetic diversity, loss of ecosystem structure and functions, and we also change the surface sediment characteristics chemically and mechanically. The big question that we all have so answer, because it is a societal question, since the seafloor resources are the common heritage of mankind, is how much is acceptable?
[slide 3] What we have learnt in these past decades and six years on our project is that the nodule ecosystems support a highly diverse fauna of sessile and mobile species. Here you can see a few sessile species from sea anemones to corals, mobile ones like sea cucumbers or other kinds of worms and jellyfish. Stalked sponges are a main structure. They are attached typically to the nodules and provide an additional specific habitat for other mobile faunas like this ophiuroid sea star that climbs up on these stalked sponge structures to better feed probably in the water column. So, nodule ecosystems are a very specific habitat in the deep sea. Also, faunal communities and environmental parameters or variables show a high variability even on very local spatial scale (a few metres), not just over thousands of kilometres.
[slide 4] To visualise a little bit what these impacts might be on longer time scales, we look at old benthic impact experiments that were already done 20-30 years ago. These are little dredge tracks, 2 m wide and maybe 1000 m long, so nothing compared to the size of what DSM operations on an industrial scale will do. Here you see the oldest track in the CCZ that exists, a dredge track from Omco, a company that did some experiments and exploration, now almost 42 years ago. Here is picture from a fresh one that was towed one year before we did our investigations. I typically show this picture because it shows quite nicely what we expect from the mining collector vehicle, that it actually takes away the nodules plus these top 10 cm of the seafloor. This is on large scale also what we expect a nodule collector system will do.
Here you see outside these old tracks what the species composition of megafauna are, large animals like holothurians, sea cucumbers in areas with nodules and also in areas without nodules. You can clearly see that the abundance of sessile megafauna is much larger in areas with nodules, because they need these nodules as a specific habitat. So, nodule habitats typically have higher abundances of macro and megafauna than typical soft seafloor sediments without these nodules. Unsurprisingly, we see the same picture for mobile fauna (more abundant in areas with nodules), for these sea stars and holothurians and so on because, as I already showed, they need these stalked sponge structures that live on the nodules, so the specific sessile fauna is a specific habitat. This is how the picture looks like even almost four decades after these small experimental disturbances that have been investigated – not just sessile fauna that is cleared when nodules are gone, so sessile fauna that primarily needs the nodules cannot come back and grow, but also the mobile fauna ab undanced. So, the disturbance from impacts may last for many decades. They are long-lasting and we also have a loss of seafloor integrity that also reduces population densities and, within it, also the ecosystem functions.
This affects entire ecosystem compartments and this is what I can show here. We were not just interested in mega-, macro- and meiofauna impacts, but also how the microbial communities in the sediments react to these disturbances. Something we had not expected was that these (microbial) activities are significantly reduced after 3-4 decades, so they do not recover within several tens of years’ timeframe. Since they are the basis of an ecosystem, degrading the organic carbon and producing the nutrient refluxes into the ecosystem, this means that very likely the ecosystem will be impacted over several hundreds of years, maybe even thousands of years. That is something we have to keep in mind – these areas where the nodules will be mined will basically be lost on geological timescales, hundreds-thousands of years. The specific habitats, the nodules removed with the mining operations of course, will not grow within these time scales. These are lost for millions of years because that is the typical timescale at which nodules grow. Typical nodules in the CCZ are something like 2-5 million and the oldest nodule was 10 million years.
The other question is what the sediment plume, the sediment outside the mining and nodule areas, will do. This is, of course, where we still have gaps in data. Small experimental suspension of sediment in plumes that we can do on scientific vessels will not be able to answer the real impact that is to be expected. We hope to see that and investigate that when these first industrial connector systems will be tested. Here, we did a small experiment in situ in 4000 m water depth in an area with nodules that you can see here – suspending sediment in an experiment and then sampling it and looking for meiofauna, in this case nematodes. What we can see is that, with a resettlement of sediment, we see a significant increased mortality of these nematodes when the sediment covering or blanketing them was greater than 1 cm in this case. With this, we are trying to actually determine or quantify the impacts and when the harmful effects will start but we have not done that of course for all the different kinds of faunal classes and species that exist. We are, at the moment, only at the stage where we are starting to get these kinds of numbers and quantifications of a few species.
[slide 5] Overall, this in the end means that we need to have conservation areas that match the habitat characteristics of the mined areas, to preserve abyssal biodiversity and vulnerable ecosystems. Since this is so variable, even on small spatial scales, this is not an easy task to do. Then, we also have to minimize the larger scale impacts that might come. For example, over distances like the CCZ, we know that species are genetically connected to each other, so we need to avoid this connectivity breaking down due to mining operations in between. We cannot answer these questions right now because we do not have enough data and knowledge on it. Adaptive spatial planning of mining operations is probably one of the key things that ISA have to think about in their mining code. As we look at this lower graph here, if you have your mining area and preservation areas around, then you will have this direct impact area, but also the plume distribution impacts area that is much larger. You have to think about spatial planning of these operations to minimize the really large-scale impacts on sizes of the entire CCZ.
What we also try to do, and still have a lot to do, is to define indicators of ecosystem health for these deep-sea environments and threshold values, for example, for effects that are needed for the regulations of the ISA. What is also important is that transparent and independent scientific assessment of these DSM operations need to be secured. What we can say is that we have the tools, at least in science, to monitor these operations and environmental impacts and assess. These can be transferred to industry so that they also have all these tools and knowledge available. With this, I actually want to stop my presentation and am happy to take your questions. Due to the short time, I cannot extend on all the different kinds of impacts, but we’re also looking next year on other impacts that come from noise and light pollution.
Thanks very much Matthias. I also wanted to note your little video showed a clip of you working at over 4 km water depth. When you see a little video on a webinar, you do not quite realise the effort, technology and skill that go into doing such a little experiment, so I really appreciate you showing that short video.
As I mentioned, sadly, we do not have Clement speaking on indigenous rights, but I hope he will be able to send us a video that we can share with you after this webinar. So, our last speaker before we move to the discussion session will be Saleem Ali. Saleem will discuss possible alternatives to DSM in terms of obtaining raw materials for green energy and other technologies, and how to comparatively evaluate their relative impacts on the environment and society. Saleem is professor of energy and environment at the University of Delaware, senior fellow at Columbia University’s Centre of Sustainable Investment and an advisor on impact evaluation for Deep Green, a DSM company, based on their sponsoring partnership with three small island developing nations, Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati. With a focus on conflict resolution, particularly related to extractive industries, Saleem was elected to the UN Resource Panel in 2017. Saleem, great pleasure to have you with us, over to you.
[01:08:46] Saleem H. Ali – Alternative Assessments and Deep-Sea Mining
[slide 1] It is a pleasure to be on, thanks to the Edinburgh team for organising. I have put forward a link on the first slide, which is to a new initiative. We have launched a platform which deals specifically with this issue of alternatives for different sources of metals. It is called Mineral Choices, I would urge the participants to check out the website and join the newsletter because we want to share the latest science and commentary in relation to sourcing metals, from a variety of sources and the latest research. Those of you on social media welcome to follow me on Twitter as well.
[slide 2] First of all, when we think of alternatives, we need to consider a systems perspective from a planetary point of view, because any kind of metal sourcing inevitably will lead us into conversations around the interconnections between supply and demand. The first option we have is reducing metal demand. If you want to think about alternatives, the first option which environmentalists would rightly point out is that, if we reduce aggregate demand for metals for green technology, we will have less need to mine. There are constraints to that – population constraints and how much we want to micromanage society. Those are questions for society to address but we have to keep our eye on the ball that aggregate demand is one of the key issues for concern. One of the concerns that comes from that is that, if you make processes and recovery of metals more efficient, you can also get an increase in demand because people see there is more opportunity and then they can end up having just as big an impact. So, efficiency does not always solve the problem. That is something we call the rebound effect and that is where the total aggregate demand must always be measured. The other is switching to products which have more circular metallic flow, so possibly existing stocks where they may be available. Of course, I think the goal should be moving towards a more circular economy, but we can only do that if we have metal stocks. Most of the research that is out there, considering the demand that will be projected for a lot of metals, particularly for electric vehicle batteries, suggests we may not be able to meet it with the current stocks. We have to first extract build those stocks, which may take 30, 40 or 50 years, and then we can have enough to move forward. Currently, I admit to you there are a few metals where we do have enough stock. Gold is one. If we really think about gold, there is enough gold above ground for us to have a totally circular economy for gold. There is enough gold in bank vaults, existing supplies of jewellery not necessarily being used and international reserves of gold that we do not really need to mine gold. However, the reason we mine gold is because there are about 14 million people dependent on artisanal mining and banks do not want to release their gold supply because, even though we do not have the gold standard, there is still this imperative towards the gold. So, there are other geopolitical reasons, but that is one metal we could create a circular economy, but we do not for other reasons. That is a societal choice. Thorium is another one. If we had nuclear reactors that were working on thorium, we would not need to mine any more uranium. We have enough material to source it from existing wastes that are stockpiled, but we do not yet have the full upscaling or technology to have that. That is just an example: if we are thinking about green technology, we could potentially have thorium reactors which could be completely circular in terms of their waste flow, coming from existing stocks. So that is one factor of it, systems alternatives. We could also switch to products with organic inputs that could be cultivated. Instead of having metals, which are geological resources, and are not renewable in terms of planetary timescales, they are renewable in chemical timescales because recycling implies they are renewable at chemical timescales. If you have copper, you can convert copper to copper oxide if you oxidise it, but you just have to inject more energy to get the copper back out of that new compound. So, it is not that you have lost the copper, you have put it in a form that you need to put more energy to get it out. But when we are talking about renewable resources on biotic timescales, as with organic materials, then we can do it much faster and with less energy potentially, because we are using existing biotic systems of energy, the sun and so on, working with microbes in the soil. So, there you have biofuels, that has its own problems, but that is an alternative potentially. We have concerns about biofuels in terms of land acquisition and the problems that come from that. We also have organic radical batteries. This is a new area, it is fascinating and there is some new work out of the University of Southern California in the last few months, where they have developed compounds – quinones – and you could use those potentially in batteries. Although, most of these batteries still require some metal catalysts for operation and require metals for each one of the electrodes. Nevertheless, I am all for science to continue with such research. You have to evaluate the carbon balance, that is the key. If you are concerned about green technology from the point of view of reducing carbon footprint, you need to employ techniques like life cycle analysis to do these comparisons and then figure out what is the best possible outcome.
[slide 3] If we come to metals, what are the sources of metals? That was the systems perspective, big picture, the ways we can deal with the energy transition. But, if we figure out that metals are going to be needed, then where do we get them from? We have terrestrial mining which can be in areas with competing human uses. You cannot really have mining currently happening under the city of London because we have competing land use. Similarly, you may not be able to have mining in indigenous lands because, for cultural reasons, indigenous people may say we do not want mining to happen. We have to think that about. You could also have situations where human population is not there as much an issue, but you have compromised biodiversity, so we have that concern clearly in parts of the Amazon, where we may not necessarily have high levels of human habitation. You may have indigenous peoples but there are some parts where you do not have human habitation, but then you may have biodiversity compromise. Then you have coastal mining in national waters, which is talked about. We do have some records of coastal mining, not for metals but for diamonds in Namibia, where is has been going on for many years, with these huge vacuum systems. Not as much for metals has been done, but that could potentially be an area. Then we have the DSM metals, which we have talked about a lot already. Then we have sources from recycling of metal stocks, but the key there is that we have the build the stock before we can recycle, and we have to ask whether we can do that or not.
[slide 4] This map comes from a paper myself and a few colleagues published in the Royal Society a few years ago, which looks at biodiversity and mining overlap in terms of protected systems. If you think about this map, the green areas are actually those where you have relatively low biodiversity and one could say that you could have extraction with less consequential impacts in turn of planetary systems. Of course, every ecosystem has its values. I know that, for solar panels in the deserts of California, there have been concerns about the desert tortoise, because you need very large areas of desert land for these solar panels, and what will happen to the desert tortoise habitat? Similar concern there, but it is all about trade-offs. Sorry, but there is no free lunch, you have to figure something out in terms of where the trade-offs are. That is for society to figure out through a deliberative process. You also have these other systems where you have a lot of mining in forested systems, which have very high biodiversity. That is another part of the trade-off.
[slide 5] Last slide. This is a more recent paper by Laura Sonter and colleagues from the University of Queensland, just out in Nature Communications, and it is looking at the criticality of the metals and where you also have mine density. They are looking at it from the point of view of these options with regard to biodiversity and which metals are most critical. That is where the debate with oceanic minerals becomes most consequential. The bottom line is alternatives are there but there are tough choices. We need to do very careful analysis in terms of industrial ecology techniques like life-cycle analysis to see the comparative impacts. If we want to go the circular economy route, which of course we do, we have to build the stocks of the metal in order to be able to recycle. We can do that currently not for many metals. Hopefully, we will at some point – especially if we can stabilise the earth’s population at some level, we will be able to do that. This stabilisation is expected in the next 50 years or so, but we do not know. We may develop situations where life expectancy increases. As someone who does a lot of futuristic research, there are a lot of unknown variables in terms of what happens with demography in the future. I will leave it at that.