Deep-sea mining: Climate solution or ecological threat?

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San Diego, CaliforniaJune , 2021Andrew K. Sweetman, professor and research leader at the Lyell Centre for Earth, Marine Science, and Technology at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland explains how sample are obtained from deep in the ocean as part of the research to see the effects mining will have on the environment in the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean. He was one of the scientist invited to take part in research by Gerard Barron, Chairman and CEO of The Metals Company, who hopes that his company will be able to mine the seafloor for nickel, cobalt, manganese in the Pacific Ocean. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
San Diego, CaliforniaJune , 2021Andrew K. Sweetman, professor and research leader at the Lyell Centre for Earth, Marine Science, and Technology at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland explains how sample are obtained from deep in the ocean as part of the research to see the effects mining will have on the environment in the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean. He was one of the scientist invited to take part in research by Gerard Barron, Chairman and CEO of The Metals Company, who hopes that his company will be able to mine the seafloor for nickel, cobalt, manganese in the Pacific Ocean. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The International Seabed Authority is meeting to devise regulations that could allow mining of the deep ocean floor for minerals needed for green energy technology.

But bringing those minerals to the surface could disrupt delicate deep-sea ecosystems.

Nevertheless, a U.N. body is now poised to begin accepting applications for ocean floor mining.

"It’s continuing the story of humanity’s age-old ambition to use up the resources that they’ve go on earth and look for the next one and push into new frontiers," Helen Scales says. "The deep ocean really is the final frontier we have, it really is the last vast space that we have not fully occupied as humanity."

Today, On Point: Mining the deep sea.


Gerard Barron, chairman and CEO of The Metals Company.

Helen Scales, marine biologist, writer. Author of many books, including "The Brilliant Abyss: Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean, and the Looming Threat That Imperils It" and "Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean, and Everything."

Andrew Sweetman, deep-sea ecologist. Leader of the Seafloor Ecology and Biogeochemistry research group at the Scottish Association for Marine Science.

Also Featured

Alanna Smith, conservation program manager at Te Ipukarea Society in the Cook Islands.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: About 500 miles south of Hawaii and running more than 3,000 miles to the Mexican coast, lies a massive area of the Pacific Ocean called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, or CCZ. The zone covers more than 1.7 million square miles of water, and the seabed below that is between roughly 2 ½ to 3 ½ miles deep.

At those depths, the seafloor – and the marine life on it – exist in absolute darkness. We know almost nothing about it. A team of British researchers published a study earlier this month that identified at least 5,500 species living in the CCZ. An astounding 90% of them were unknown to science, discoveries so new, they hadn’t even been named yet. And the researchers say it’s also possible that most of those plants and animals aren’t found anywhere else on Earth.

There’s something else resting on the CCZ seafloor. Rocky nodules that look like blackened potatoes. They’re known as polymetallic nodules. They’re composed of layers of metallic ores that build up around marine debris. It’s not yet fully understood how that happens. But we do know the process takes millions of years. And over that time, the polymetallic nodules have become what some see as the most important untapped resource of the modern world. It’s estimated that they contain six times as much cobalt, three times as much nickel, and four times as much of the rare-earth metal yttrium as there is on land. And it’s all on the bottom of the ocean, amid one of the most pristine, untouched habitats in the world.

Human industry may soon leave its mark there. The tiny island nation of Nauru has partnered with a deep-sea mining firm called the Metals Company. Together, they have triggered a diplomatic cascade at the United Nationals International Seabed Authority. And now, the ISA is poised – after decades of deliberation – to begin accepting applications that could open the international seabed to mining.

In a government video, Nauru’s President Baron Waqa, says pulling the polymetallic nodules from the seafloor is good for the world and for Nauru.

BARON QAQA: We see this new mining of these nodules to be something that will benefit the world of tomorrow. I believe that Nauru will benefit greatly. My government continues to look for other revenue sources for Nauru, not just now, but for the future. This venture will ensure that our revenue will be well diversified for our children and their children well into the future.

CHAKRABARTI: The International Seabed Authority is currently meeting in Jamaica to hash out how it might police seabed mining. An important first step informing regulations around the industry on the seafloor. However, under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Seas, the seabed and its mineral resources are considered the “common heritage of mankind” that must be managed in a way that protects the interests of humanity through the sharing of economic benefits, support for marine scientific research, and protecting marine environments. Can those things, all those things be done, protected with the imminent approval of seabed mining?

We’ll start with Gerard Barron. He’s Chairman and CEO of the Metals Company, the company that's partnering with the Nation of Nauru, and he joins us from London.

Gerard Barron, welcome to the show.

GERARD BARRON: Hi, Meghna, it's a pleasure to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: First of all, tell me you founded, or were one of the founders of the company back in 2011. Do I have that date correct?

BARRON: Yeah, we started the company in 2011, 12 years ago now.

CHAKRABARTI: And what inspired you to launch a company in a field that has been only limited to exploration thus far?

Originally, I was the financial backer of this particular project, and it was only when I really started to dive into the data behind climate change and realized how important getting a lower impact supply of metals, base metals like nickel and copper would be to the energy transition. And of course, the reason for that is that transitioning away from hydrocarbons is going to be very metal intensive.

And as a society, we need to think about where do these metals come from and what's the environmental and human cost? And so the company was originally set up by a good friend of mine and I was happy to step in and take the reins back in 2017 when I realized it really needed to take a different direction.

And of course, we find ourselves on the doorstep of an industry that I think can make a massive impact towards addressing climate change.

CHAKRABARTI: Because essentially the metals that are to be found on those polymetallic nodules would be essential for electronics, batteries, et cetera, which we currently need and would probably need more of in the future to decarbonize.

So the company has thus far been granted exploratory licenses and so particularly, can you just briefly describe what you have found in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone?

BARRON: Yeah, so on two of our license areas, one sponsored by Nauru and the second by Tonga, we have identified 1.6 billion tons of polymetallic nodules.

And to put that into context, those two deposits have been ranked the world's largest and the world's second largest undeveloped nickel projects on the planet. It's enough to electrify the entire USA light passenger fleat. So it's a very large resource and that's on two of our license areas.

CHAKRABARTI: Light passenger fleet meaning cars.

BARRONS: Cars, exactly. Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Okay. Interesting. So I guess the big question that everyone's wondering who hasn't, had a chance to study deep-sea mining or deep seabed mining before, is how are you going to do it? How do you get those nodules up from three miles down?

BARRON: The engineering challenges were actually largely solved 50 years ago. Because this industry almost got started, there were great names like Shell and BP and Mitsubishi and Sumitomo involved. Who went down and collected these very same rocks and Rio Tinto built a processing plant to convert them into metal. But 50 years ago, the world had not agreed who owned the oceans, and so the United Nations stopped them. And so last year, for six months, we were at sea, testing our nodule collector system.

And it basically involves a production vessel that sits on top of the water and a large pipe, which we call a riser with an umbilical cord that provides the electricity to an electric robot that crawls along the sea floor. And one of the many benefits that this resource offers is that the nodules lie on the seabed a little bit like golf balls lie on a driving range.

And how we collect them is by firing a jet of water from our collector horizontally. It's an engineering principle known as the Coandă effect, and that essentially lifts the nodules. We then cleanse them from the sediment that might have been with them, leaving most of that sediment, like 95% of it behind on the sea floor.

And then using water as the transport system, we then pump them back to the production vessel, which will when the hull is full, transfer them to a transport vessel that then moves them to shore. And one of the great things about being ocean-based is that you don't have to go and build a lot of existing fixed infrastructure.

We don't have to build roads, and rail, and deep-water ports, and power and villages. We have to convert a production vessel, which we've already done out first with our partner Allseas, and then we sail it on out there. And of course, by being able to ship them anywhere, we could also ship them to the USA, or we could ship them to Asia or to Europe.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And so how long are the robot, or excuse me, how large are the robots that you just described that would be crawling along the seabed?

BARRON: The pilot collector, think of it as about the size of a small, demountable hut. And the amazing thing about these robots is that out of the water, they're heavy.

And upwards to a hundred tons. But when you put them into the water, you have to add buoyancy, of course. But they literally glide along the sea floor. And one of our problems is keeping them on the sea floor. And that means you can really minimize the impact that you are making to that environment.

And if you go online and see some of the tread marks that we make on the sea floor. You can see we're talking about a couple of inches into that bottom. And so it's an ideal way of collecting these rocks. And of course, not having to drill and dig is such an amazing advantage that this resource offers.

So do you really, you're really saying that mining these polymetallic nodules off the sea floor comes with a minimized impact? We have about a minute till our first break here, Jared, so I'm just going to let you get started here. Because I don't fully understand how that is possible given that you're not selectively picking up the nodules, you're blasting the water and churning up everything that's in those first couple centimeters of the seabed.

BARRON: We're lifting the nodules and I think this is where the resource, as I mentioned, offers advantages that just aren't available on land. And so, you are given, there are no plants in this part of the sea, of course. There is zero flora, and as far as the fauna goes, there's not much that sits on the nodules.

Of course, on occasions there are obligate animals that sit on the organisms, but most of the life in this part of the sea floor is in the sediment. It's bacteria, and if you measure that, it's around 10 grams of biomass per square meter. We're talking with Gerard Barron. He's the CEO of the Metals Company.

It's a seabed mining company that has partnered with the island nation of Nauru and maybe on the vanguard of opening up the ocean's sea floors to mining for these very important, potentially important mineral or objects called polymetallic nodules. We'll have more when we come back.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we're talking about the fact that a United Nations body is on the cusp of approving applications for seabed mining. Because the floors of our oceans are full of things called polymetallic nodules that contain massive amounts of the minerals and metals that we may need for a decarbonized future.

And I'm speaking today with Gerard Barron. He is the CEO of the Metals Company, and it's a company that has partnered with the island nation of Nauru and is on the vanguard of leading this effort to open the ocean floors to mining. Now, Gerard, I fully acknowledge that if we're going to have enough technology, batteries, wind turbines and the like to reduce the carbon impact that humanity is having on our atmosphere, and therefore the world, that we're going to be hungry for exactly the kind of metals that are on the sea floor right now.

That seems pretty clear. But I must question your assertion that the environmental impact of mining those polymetallic nodules, in the way you've described them, that impact would be minimal. Because you've described a massive machine that is indiscriminately sucking up the first couple of centimeters of the seabed, and then through another process within the machine, separating the nodules, pumping those back up to the surface three miles up, and then spewing a plume of sediment out behind it.

And when you said it's mostly bacteria down there, how can we possibly know that? These recent surveys have found that 90% of the organisms that have been collected from the sea floor had never even been named before. And I'm also reading a quote here from Dr. Diva Amon. She's from Trinidad and Tobago, and she's a deep-sea biologist.

She's been attending some of these ISA meetings. And last year she co-authored a paper where she said, "Across all of the areas where mining exploration has started, only 1% of the science required to ascertain the mining's impact has been done." And you're claiming it would be of minimal environmental impact.

How do you stand by that?

BARRON: So, let me unpack some of those comments. Firstly, as I mentioned, the resource itself is what offers so many advantages, and when it comes to the understanding of this part of the sea floor, it's been studied since the 1970s, so it's not as though we know nothing about it.

And I think it's irresponsible when people say we know more about the surface of the moon that we know about the deep ocean. Because when it comes to this one little part of the ocean and we're talking about the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, it's in total around 4.5 million square kilometers.

Now keep in mind the ocean is 360 million square kilometers. And already about 2 million square kilometers has been set aside to be protected. But we have studied that area intensely for the last decade. And in fact, if you go to the OBIS database, which is an open database available to all, you'll see that is where all of the data gathered on the CCZ over the last 15 years by other contractors, and we uploaded via the International Seabed Authority our most recent update, which increased the available data.

And leading to the science by 150%. And so we've essentially done in the last four to five years, what has previously taken 15 years, and that's only the beginning. We're going to be adding significantly more data as this journey continues in the coming years. And of course, one of the things that people talk about is, it's biodiversity and the undiscovered species. And that is true.

There are species undiscovered in the CCZ, at about the same ratio that they're undiscovered on land, but the difference about the areas in, and let's talk about Indonesia, which is where all of the growth in nickel production is coming from. It's estimated that in Indonesian rainforests alone, there are 300,000 undiscovered species.

300,000. And so that compares to the number you mentioned at the beginning of the program, which is much less than 10,000. So I don't want to give your listeners the impression that there is no impact. Because such an activity does not exist. But what we have to look at is, how does this set of impact compare against the set of impacts that are not to be speculated about, that are well-documented on land?

But because they're not happening in our backyard, we don't pay much attention to them. And Indonesian rainforest nickel, if your listeners care to put that into a Google search, that's where all of the growth in nickel is coming from. And that's the material that goes into stainless steel.

It goes into your batteries. And even though they are making batteries without that material, in some cases for the low-end market, the growth in demand is racing ahead. And batteries are one important use. Steel making is another, but so is the ongoing industrialization of the developing world, plus population growth.

So we have many demand drivers. And so we have a responsibility to look at the planet as an integrated system, and we can't just focus on the CCZ and say we're worried about destroying some worms and some organisms that depend on our nodules because we're going to remove them.

Because those set of impacts, all the studies show are going to be a fraction compared to the existing set of impacts, which are now happening at an increased pace. And let's go to the authorities, the World Bank or the International Energy Agency, that forecasts will need to increase extractive industries by between 500% and 600% per annum by 2040. And so they're the numbers that we really have to be thinking about. And there will be a cost, of course.

But that cost will be at the lower end of the scale. And of course, our heavy investment in the science, in environmental research is helping to put an end to some of the myths. So for example, many people will talk about the sediment that will generate, for example, think of driving your car down a dirt path.

You'll kick up some dust. The question is, how much? How far will it travel? What will its impact be? And extreme people were forecasting through pure speculation that this dust might travel for thousands of miles, but instead, what all of the research has shown and as evidenced by three MIT papers that were published last year, all peer reviewed, of course, is that the sediment only rises around two meters above the sea floor and up to 98% of it, between 92% and 98% of it, stays in the test area.

And so that means the impacts are very localized. Once again, that's a thank you to the resource and where it's located. So we have to be depending on the data that we're gathering to inform the opinions.

CHAKRABARTI: I appreciate your response, but I have to say I do not believe it is irresponsible for scientists to say we know less about the sea floor than we do about the surface of the moon, because it is true.

Now, you then shifted to saying, we're talking about the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, and maybe that one little section of the sea floor we know a little bit more about. I will grant you that, but it's long been known that we do not know anywhere near as fully as necessary what is happening on our ocean floors, as we do with the continuous 60 years of mapping of the moon.

But I have to ask you though, what you're describing is that no matter where human beings look for the minerals or the metals that we meet and might need for the batteries of the future, we are going to leave destruction in our wake. So we have to choose the less bad option.

What I wonder is, why not wait for applying for applications for mining until your technology is actually better at selecting, removing the polymetallic nodules from the sea floors? So you don't have to rely on scraping the top few centimeters of the seabed. And instead, can perhaps, through better engineering and better I don't know, even AI, just you grab rapidly the nodules themselves to minimize disturbance? By the way, this is disturbance that a German team, they recently, a few years ago, published a study that they did a test run of seabed mining in a certain location, came back 30 years later and the area had not recovered.

So I'm just wondering, why not wait until the technology for the mining is better?

BARRON: Can I just, actually that experiment that was done 30 years ago, they weren't harvesting. They dragged a plow through a field and so they tried to create the maximum disturbance, and what they found was that it hadn't fully recovered.

It had recovered when it came to population species count, and also biodiversity. But it hadn't fully recovered, and that's the important word there. And so look, that's why we're doing the investing hundreds of millions of dollars into scientific research, and we know enough about our impacts. Last year when we were out there collecting our nodules, we were at sea for six months.

We had a second vessel that was filled with 80 people, many of them scientists, and we were surveying the area before we collected nodules, during the collection process. When, by the way, we had around 50 devices in the water monitoring, measuring, and then we stayed behind a survey. And understand it after we'd collected nodules, as well.

And so we can estimate these impacts. Like this is not a mystery unknown. Because, and we can estimate those impacts off real data, not off wild speculation. And I think we don't have time to wait, Meghna. That's the other issue about why don't we wait. Because I don't think picking nodules one at a time is going to solve the energy crisis.

I think what we need to do is to make some decisions. And the decisions are, if we can illustrate that we can massively reduce the environmental impacts. Plus, we can stop the impacts on human civilizations, because mining has a big impact on indigenous communities and the people that depend on those ecosystems. Because there are many alternative uses for those land-based ecosystems.

So we don't have time to wait, and I think that one of the challenges with mining, of course, is that much of it happens in the developing world. Because no one wants a mine in their backyard, particularly in America. And when you outsource the mining, you also outsource the regulatory approvals, and that comes with a challenge. And I think that I also hear people say, "Yes, but you're not going to stop mining." But when it comes to nickel, I believe we are going to stop new nickel laterite mines. I do believe that. And primarily because we can also use a lot of the processing facilities that are used for nickel laterite, for our nodules.

It's another amazing gift.

CHAKRABARTI: Gerard Baron, I know I've actually kept you longer than we originally agreed to, so I appreciate your time and for joining us today. Thank you so much for joining us.

BARRON: Meghna, my pleasure.

 CHAKRABARTI: All right. That was Gerard Barron, CEO of the Metals Company. Let's turn now to Helen Scales.

She's joining us from Cambridge, England. She's a marine biologist and author of the "The Brilliant Abyss: Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean, and the Looming Threat That Imperils It."

CHAKRABARTI: Helen, welcome.

HELEN SCALES: Hi Meghna, lovely to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Also with us is Andrew Sweetman and he happens to be joining us from his sailboat on the Firth of Clyde estuary off the Isle of Erin in Scotland.

And he's professor and leader of sea floor ecology and biochemistry research group at the Scottish Association for Marine Science. And he's actually been to the Clarion-Clipperton Zone about eight times. Professor Sweetman, welcome to you.

ANDREW SWEETMAN: Thank you very much.

CHAKRABARTI: So Helen and Professor Sweetman, first of all, I'd just like to hear from you what is down there in terms of biodiversity on and near the seabed in places like the Clarion-Clipperton Zone?

Helen, go ahead.

SCALES: I'll jump into this quickly and I know we should hear from Andrew because he has been there. But one of the things I wanted to pick up from the discussions in the last half hour is this idea, which I think is a this long-standing narrative of the deep ocean being a desert.

It stems from hundreds of years ago when scientists really didn't think there was any life in the deep ocean and now we know very differently. And specifically in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, the comment that there's not much living on nodules in terms of fauna, I think is just incorrect. As you highlighted Meghna, that recent study of 5,000 plus species that have been found there and many of those, I think studies are also showing that around 60% to 70% of the animal life that you can see with your naked eye relies directly on those nodules. They live either inside them or they fix on the outside of them. We're talking things like corals and sponges. Various other strange looking life forms that are pretty much dependent on those nodules.

But it isn't all just hidden life. There are big, beautiful things too, and I think maybe Andrew can help paint a picture of what it actually looks like down there.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Andrew, could you? Because to my imagination, three miles down you're in utter blackness and lots of high pressure. And yet in just a quick survey, I've seen pictures of things as fantastic as almost ghostly white octopus down there.

SWEETMAN: Yes. It's an amazing environment, as you said. I've been there eight to nine times. I've lost count of the total number of times. But the area is, think of the plains of Iowa, and instead of it being cornfields, it's mud planes, rolling hills of mud peppered with polymetallic nodules, and in between these rolling hills of mud, you'll get seamounts and you'll get rocky outcrops and you get an enormous diversity of fauna.

Yes, the biomass generally is very low, but the biomass of the Galapagos Islands is also very low. But it's a unique ecosystem. And the Clarion-Clipperton Zone is a truly unique ecosystem. As the paper by Rabone that was just published talked about, there's an enormous biodiversity of the meta zones. But in terms of the microbes the biodiversity is even greater, and that's just at the sea floor. Then you have the water column and the water column is the largest deep-sea habitat we have. It's the largest habitat on the planet. Our planet is characterized by meters cubed, not meters squared.

And we probably know even less about what's in the water column, but, yeah, it really is an amazing habitat. My students often ask, "Why do you like going there all the time?" And I say, "Because everywhere you go, you are the first. Your eyes are the first eyes to lay sight on a particular seamount or a particular area of sea floor or particular part of the water column. No other human eyes would've seen that part in all of creation. It's a truly humbling experience." It's a beautiful ecosystem. One of my favorites.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Sweetman, I have to say I was very seduced by the idea about talking to a marine expert while he's on his sailboat, which you are. But I also acknowledge that the internet connection is probably not as stable as we'd like it to. I want to acknowledge to the listeners about that. But we're going to keep Professor Sweetman on because as he just said, he's one of the very few humans on this earth who has been down to the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.

Which as we're discussing, could soon be opened by the International CBE Authority to Mining. So Professor Sweetman and Helen Scales, stand by for just a moment. Much more to discuss.

 Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Helen Scales and Andrew Sweetman are with us today. And we're talking about the fact that seabed mining, particularly in a place called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, between Hawaii and Mexico, may soon be a reality. Now, Helen and Andrew, I want to actually just acknowledge that I really overshot my time with Gerard Barron, which reduces the amount of time that we have to spend together.

And I apologize for that. But there was a lot that he was saying, which just raised many questions into my mind. And I want to go through some of them very quickly with both of you. So, Helen, first of all, you heard Gerard describe that he claims that the act of mining or churning that few centimeters off the top of the seabed, and then the plume of sediment that shoots out behind the robot, as he called it, would be damaging, but minimally so, to the sea floor environment there.

Do you believe that?

SCALES: I don't know any of the latest rounds of this research that he's been doing, so I can't comment on that directly. But what I broadly know from other studies and from what is in the public eye, it seems very unlikely to me. And I think also we should think carefully about what he was saying in terms of, "Oh, it's only the top couple of inches of the sediment that's being disrupted." And that's actually to a large extent, what really matters in this ecosystem, as do those microbes that we've touched on. And one thing we haven't mentioned yet, is that microbial ecosystem, it's like a living skin on the surface of these sediments, and they take millions of years to form.

They're incredibly intricate, incredibly diverse. And this system of bugs, if you like, is playing a very important role in cycling nutrients and helping carbon to be sequestered into the seabed. So this is one thing --

CHAKRABARTI: Wait so those very, excuse me, I just, you said something important.

I want to reiterate. Those very microbes are helping sequester carbon in the oceans, and the oceans are our major carbon sink. So if we disturb a lot of those microbes, could we not end up making things worse while trying to make them better with more batteries on the surface?

SCALES: Yes, exactly. And it is again, a big unknown. And yeah, I would also question this idea that we know the CCZ said so well that we can clearly say what the impacts are going to be. I would say that the research has really only just begun to go down that route in the last few years. Now that we have the technologies is amazing, deep diving research vessels that we have.

But yes, those microbes, this microbial system certainly is involved in this whole idea of carbon organic matter falling down to the seabed, dragging with it enormous amounts of carbon that originally was in the atmosphere. And the important thing about the deep sea for that carbon store is that it stays there.

It should naturally stay there for thousands of years, really keeping it away from the atmosphere. So if we begin disrupting that, as you say, potentially, it's going to really disrupt in a critical part of the carbon cycle. And just as well to touch on that, the experimental mining 30 years ago that we touched on.

Yes, it was a big plow harrow that pulled across the seabed, but I actually think that will be less of an impact in the kinds of mining machines that are going to be sent down. I don't have any reason to believe that it will just glide across the seabed. My understanding is these will be caterpillar tracks on these mining machines, much bigger than the test machines we've seen so far.

These yes, are house sized. We're talking house sized, I think, eventually for these commercial scale operations. But just going back quickly to that 30-year study, you can go back to that area. It's just off Peru, a different, slightly different part of the abyss, and you can still see those track marks 30 years later.

And the microbial communities, critically have not yet come back to anything like they were, or that they are in those undisturbed areas away from those sites. So this is the kind of level of our understanding at the moment, which is saying even after 30 years, nothing has changed. Who knows how much longer it's going to be? It's, yeah. Long time.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm going to come to you professor in just a second. But Helen, do you see, this is speculation, but do you see the potential for seabed mining and the long-term impact it has on the environment, the marine environment, any different than the kinds of impacts we already know?

And in fact, Gerard Barron described them himself about land-based mining.

SCALES: The key thing here, in my view, and I share this with hundreds of other scientists, is that we cannot make a meaningful comparison at this point between the impacts of the mines. The mining activities that are carrying on land.

And yes, we know those impacts much better because we can see them, they've been going on for longer, they're actually happening, versus what could be happening if mining did begin in the deep ocean. We simply don't have that information to make any kind of meaningful comparison. So I think it is disingenuous not only to say that deep sea mining would bring an end to land-based mining, I don't believe that.

I know others maybe do. But I certainly don't believe that is going to happen. And I also don't think we are in the position, as we've already said, the scientific understanding is a tiny fraction of what we would need, to know what the impacts would be. So how we can say, "Oh, it's going to have less of an impact," I think is deeply misleading.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm going to turn back to Andrew here for a second because Professor Sweetman look, I would like to put some something to rest here. And I am prepared, always prepared and welcoming people to correct me if I am wrong, but this idea of that we don't know enough about this very environment that we may be opening up to mining, you heard Gerard Barron say that he thought it was irresponsible for people to say that we know less about the oceans and the ocean floor than we do know about the surface of the moon.

That is a common phrase. I, of course, pushed back on him on that. You set us straight. Do we know more or less about what's on the ocean floors than we know about the surface of the moon?

SWEETMAN: I thank you for that question. It's put me on the spot a little bit.


SWEETMAN: I would say that there are certain parts of the ocean, the deep ocean, that we know quite well. So for example, there are certain hydrothermal systems in the East Pacific rise. There's certain areas off the coast of Northeast California called Station M. And there's a site located 200 miles to the west of Ireland to the southwest of Ireland called the Porcupine Abyssal Plain. And we've surveyed these areas, as well as other hydrothermal systems in the mid ocean, along the mid ocean ridge of the Atlantic. Quite extensively, now.

We don't know everything, but there are areas that we know quite well because we've been doing 30 years of research at some of these places. Other areas we know less about. For example, the deep ocean water column. Most deep ocean studies are focused at the sea floor. Very few are studies done in the water column.

Now there's some fantastic scientists doing work off in California and the University of Hawaii on these ecosystems. But the deep ocean water column, I still think is very understudied. And there are certain parts of the ocean floor, for example, South Pacific. The Hadal zone, which is below 6,000 meters depth to 12,000 meters depth.

We know very little about that. Very often because when we go, we tend to go to the deepest point on the planet in these trenches, for example, the Mariana Trench challenge of deep, and we look at the biodiversity there. And that's analogous to going to the top of Mount Everest and looking at the biodiversity at the top, Mount Everest, concluding what the biodiversity of the Himalayas is like.

We know some, about certain parts of the ocean, of the deep ocean, but not a lot of it. There's a lot of it that's still left to be discovered.

CHAKRABARTI: So let's push forward here a little bit more and talk about some of the other types of impacts and also the U.N. body that is, has been charged with regulating the seabeds in international waters around the planet. So first of all, I just want to give a nod to the fact that this is a major issue both with supporters and detractors amongst island nations. For example, you heard, we heard the president of Nuatu earlier. Here's a different voice. This is Alanna Smith, an environmental activist in the Cook Islands.

And she is staunchly opposed to mining for those polymetallic nodules. And she says the ocean and the deep sea are intricately connected to Pacific Islanders cultural heritage.

ALANNA SMITH: We have our pastimes been telling us that actually life originated from the deep sea. That's where our gods originated from.

And how the world and us people came to be today. There are those intangible connections that Pacific Island people have. Also, Pacific Island is really relying on our oceans as a food source. This has been a key part of our identity for hundreds of years now. We need our fish. It's one of our staple diets.

We wouldn't want that to be further impacted by new potential stress, such as seabed mining.

CHAKRABARTI: So that's Alanna Smith, an environmental activist in the Cook Islands. Now let's turn our attention to the International Seabed, sea floor, Authority itself. Again, that's the U.N. body that right now is deliberating on the first set of regulations that are required to open the sea floor to mining.

It's headed by a lawyer named Michael Lodge. And a couple of years ago, he actually appeared in a promotional video for the Metals Company, of the firm seeking approval from the ISA for seabed mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.

MICHAEL LODGE: Land-based resources becoming increasingly difficult to access. We've taken the best resources already. Future resources are in more remote places, which means it's more expensive to recover them. It's more environmentally challenging, and the grade of those resources, the concentration of those resources, is much less.

The Deep Green has a contract with the International Seabird Authority. It has to be sponsored by a state that is a party to the Law of the Sea.

In the case of Deep Green, it is sponsored by the state of Nauru. We have issued a 15 year expiration contract.

CHAKRABARTI: So that is the voice of Michael Lodge, the head of the International Seabed Authority in a promotional video for a company that's now known as The Metals Company. Then it was known as Deep Green. And in the video he also appears on the deck of a Metals Company ship.

Now, Lodge claims his image and voice were used without his permission. The Metals Company subsequently removed that video from public viewing in from their website in 2022. Okay, so Helen, the reason why I wanted to set that up is because the ISA itself has come under some criticism for what could be maybe mildly called a conflict of interest here. Because as far as I understand, to finance itself, the ISA depends on fees from companies doing the exploratory work and contributions from member states.

And it's expected to receive a percentage of the profits from seabed mining, if it moves forward. It's a small group of people who are in charge of all of the sea floor, under international waters on the planet. Do they have a conflict of interest here? I wouldn't be alone in saying that, yes, they absolutely do.

And yeah, the finances are coming from these exploration contracts. None of which I should point out have been turned down. So anyone up until this point, as far as I'm aware, who has asked to have a piece of the seabed to take a look at and see what the minerals are down there, they've been given that in return for quite a large sum.

And to add to that, if this goes down the line, as it's expected, the international Seabed Authority would actually run its own mines, as well. That's a part of this early discussions that were in place as part of the Law of the Sea.

What I would also point out, the reason why this feels so difficult to wrap your head around is that as an affiliation, an affiliated body with the United Nations, the ISA has a dual mandate. They are not just there, although they seem potentially to be really pushing that. They're not just there to start mining and to see this thing happen, but they are legally bound to protect the deep seabed from harm.

And finding a way to do both those things at this point seems to be very difficult. And that, I think, is one of the reasons why all of these discussions happening in Jamaica are taking a very long time.

CHAKRABARTI: Andrew, there's something about where your mind is as a scientist and one of the people who've been to the Clarion-Clipperton Zone that I wanted to spend a minute talking about, because we've only got, sadly about two and a half minutes left in the show.

You've said that you are not for mining, but you're also not against it. Can you explain why?

SWEETMAN: Sure. So I've done a lot of work gathering baseline information from various license areas, as well as being involved in impact studies. And I was actually one of the principal investigators of this 30-year experiment when we went back to it in 2015, the DISCOL area off the coast of Peru.

And I have to remain neutral. Because when I'm interpreting my data, if I have an agenda, if I'm for mining or I'm against it, I might interpret my data in such a way whereby I end up interpreting the data, either pro mining, in a pro mining context or in anti-mining context. So I have to stay neutral.

But more than that, there's this thing that I've not really thought about. And that's time. We think that there's lots and lots of time that we have to transition to a green economy, to stop relying on fossil fuels. And a lot of the weak research that I've done in terms of climate change impacts in the deep ocean were showing that potentially even today, the deep ocean in the Pacific Ocean is being impacted by climate change.

And when I say climate change, I'm talking about a very slight increase in temperature, a very slight decrease in food, a very slight decrease in oxygen and a slight decrease in ocean pH. But it's happening to these ecosystems. They are so stable for hundreds of thousands of years, tens to hundreds of thousands of years, that even a tiny little change will have a big impact.

Just to put it in perspective. One square meter of sea floor at 4,000 meters gets about as much energy as is in a sugar cube that you put in your coffee. They get that per square meter per year, and we're predicting that they may lose 50% of their food supply by 2100, and the impact are going to start to be impacting those environments in the next five to 10 years.

So we don't have enormous amounts of time.

CHAKRABARTI: Due to climate change right now. Professor Sweetman, I'm so sorry that I had to take it back from you there. I'm just flat out of time. Andrew Sweetman, professor and leader of the Sea Floor Ecology and Biochemistry research Group at the Scottish Association for Marine Science.

Thank you so much. And Helen Scales, author of "The Brilliant Abyss." Thank you as well. Boy, I feel like we only just began talking about

This program aired on July 13, 2023.

Hilary McQuilkin Producer, On Point
Hilary McQuilkin is a producer for On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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