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Preventing the Rise of Deep Sea Mining

A rare chance to stop something awful before it starts

by John Hocevar

April 22, 2021

This year, companies like DeepGreen and DEME Group are in the Pacific Ocean, hoping to demonstrate that it is possible to mine the deep sea for rare metals used in batteries. The idea is as dangerous as it sounds.

Greenpeace International activists paint the word 'RISK!' on the starboard side of Normand Energy, a vessel chartered by the Belgian company Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR). The Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior is in the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Pacific to bear witness to the deep sea mining industry. Part of the ongoing 'Protect the Oceans' campaign.

© Marten van Dijl / Greenpeace

This year, ships operated by companies like DeepGreen and DEME Group are in the Pacific Ocean, hoping to demonstrate that it is possible to mine the deep sea for rare metals used in batteries. The idea is as dangerous as it sounds, with potentially disastrous implications for the least studied and least understood ecosystems on the planet. The creatures living in the deep sea tend to be slow growing and long lived, with low reproductive rates. These factors combine to make deep sea marine life highly vulnerable.

The mining companies argue that we have to either let them destroy the deep sea or they will have to destroy the land and the climate. None of these things are acceptable or necessary. A liveable future does not depend on making terrible bargains with corporations looking to make as much money as possible while they still can. If we allow companies like DeepGreen to mine the deep sea, other corporations will continue to mine the land and violate the human rights of nearby communities. 

Listening to DeepGreen’s CEO talking about deep sea mining as if it were as simple as picking up “golf balls on a driving range” should be enough to make any potential investor run screaming from the room. You don’t pluck anything off the seafloor five miles down, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You hope you find what you are looking for, and you hope you find enough of it to convince investors that it might possibly be worth the astronomical expense and risk involved. Maybe you hope you don’t wake up Godzilla. Minimizing – never mind preventing – damage to ocean ecosystems is not part of their equation. The mining companies don’t know what is down there, they don’t know what damage they will cause, and they have no idea what the long term impacts will be. It’s almost as if… they don’t care.

Every reasonable person understands we have to do everything we can to prevent climate change from making our planet unlivable, but deep sea mining is not the solution and corporations who say it is are just looking for a way to turn climate change into a financial windfall. The important thing is to separate out the hucksters and grifters from those who can actually help, and I’m here to tell you companies like DeepGreen and DEME are not offering real solutions. You don’t save the Water Planet by destroying the ocean. You don’t fight climate change by stirring up carbon that has been trapped in deep sea sediments for longer than humans have walked the earth.

Deep sea mining is so unlikely to be commercially viable that I can’t help but wonder if the whole thing is just a scheme to attract investment dollars before governments wake up and ban deep sea mining for good. 

There is no question that the green energy future we are building will require batteries, which is why investment in battery R&D is growing so rapidly. New designs keep emerging and more are on the way, so it is very unlikely that the types of batteries we have relied on in the past will be the ones we need in the future. Banking on the idea that deep sea mining will someday become a cost effective way to obtain rare metals is a risky bet, as all that equipment could easily become stranded assets – all dressed up for destruction but no place to go. In the meantime, we need to get much better about recycling the metals in the batteries we are using rather than expanding mining into new areas.

Deep sea mining con artists like DeepGreen, Lockheed Martin and DEME Group will not stop as long as there are investors willing to feed them, and car companies and tech businesses ready to buy batteries with deep sea metals in them. The profitability facade is crumbling, though, as car companies and tech businesses have public facing brands. No one dependent on selling products to the general public wants to be tainted with deep sea destruction. BMW, Volvo, Google and Samsung have already publicly supported a moratorium on deep sea mining, and more are likely to follow soon. 

As public concern grows and potential buyers head for the hills, we will be working to prevent deep sea mining from becoming yet another source of devastation to our beleaguered planet. That means confronting these companies at sea and in their board rooms. It means working with auto and tech companies to demonstrate there is no market for deep sea minerals. And it means making sure governments do not permit mining to move forward.

Are you with us?

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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