Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Deep Sea Mining is the World’s Next Environmental Dilemma

Donovan Street, Dec 13, 2023

Perhaps the most important aspect of the global environmental crisis is the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy technology that will produce net-zero greenhouse emissions. Not only will clean energy halt environmental damage caused by fossil fuels, but it also presents a lucrative opportunity for whoever capitalizes on this emerging industry. Yet, the transition to clean energy technology is no simple task. It will require a momentous, multifaceted overhaul that includes substantial funding, scientific research, and most significantly, resources. A May 2021 report by the International Energy Agency  revealed that critical resources—notably cobalt, copper, nickel, and manganese that are vital for the production of clean energy technology—could increase by 400-600% by the year 2040 [1]. Growing demand for these resources has caused a scramble to discover untapped sources of the valuable minerals necessary for the production of clean energy technology. This is why large swaths of international waters across the world are piquing the interest of those who seek to make a profit in the clean energy sector. Deep below these waters—hidden amidst caverns and crevices that not even light can penetrate—are small pieces of rock known as polymetallic nodules. Polymetallic nodules contain an abundance of the critical minerals that are used in the batteries that power clean energy technology. Preliminary exploration of just one of these areas estimates that over twenty billion tons of polymetallic nodules are lying within the seabeds on the ocean floor [2]. However, deep-sea mining  has been associated with catastrophic environmental repercussions, such as habitat destruction and the endangerment of aquatic life, causing many to question whether it is the optimal path on the journey for a greener future. 

Let’s Rock and Roll

Because the seabeds containing polymetallic nodules lie in international waters, there is uncertainty as to who possesses the right to extract these resources. Deep-sea mining is currently regulated by a United Nations organization known as the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The ISA has regulated deep-sea mining by granting exploration permits of seabeds, and the organization has granted 31 exploration permits since its foundation in 1994 [3]. A major flaw of the ISA’s governing method is that it has yet to establish clear guidelines and restrictions on deep-sea mining. This has caused eager lobbyists to form political alliances in an attempt to pressure the ISA to create official rules on deep-sea mining. The most active of these coalitions is a group containing a private mining company—known as The Metals Company—and a group of Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), such as Nauru, Kiribati, and Tonga. The combined strength of the PSIDS’ political influence with the funds and technology of The Metals Company has created a prominent challenge to the status quo regulation methods that the ISA has enforced. In 2021, Nauru president Lionel Aingimea made a bold political gambit by enacting an obscure clause in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that required the ISA to formalize deep-sea mining codes in the next two years. That deadline approached in July of 2023, but the ISA failed to agree on official regulations. The ISA’s failure to reach an agreement has given eager opportunists carte blanche to petition for exploitation permits, which would allow companies to extract resources from seabeds. The Metals Company has already threatened to begin independent mining operations in the near future, before the ISA can institute regulations [4]. If these companies were to launch unrestricted deep-sea mining operations, a Pandora’s Box of environmental disasters could be opened.

Heavy Metal

Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that it is an environmentally sustainable method to meet the global demand for the critical resources needed in the clean energy transition. Terrestrial mining is currently the dominant method for acquiring the minerals necessary for clean energy production, but it has caused substantial environmental damage, including habitat destruction, water contamination, soil erosion, pollution, and the release of greenhouse gasses [5]. Terrestrial mining has also been linked to a host of ethical concerns. More than half of the world’s cobalt is produced by the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labor in the mining industry is rampant and miners are forced to work and live in abhorrent conditions [6]. Some believe that a shift to deep-sea mining as the primary procedure for acquiring heavy metals would alleviate a few of the environmental complications associated with terrestrial mining. For example, deep-sea mining causes far less pollution than terrestrial mining, and the little greenhouse gasses it does produce are unlikely to escape into the atmosphere. Additionally, the PSIDS hope that deep-sea mining’s role in the transition to clean energy will help them confront major environmental and social challenges. Clean energy technology could combat the rising sea levels that threaten the existence of these countries by reducing harmful emissions contributing to climate change. Early investment in clean energy and deep-sea mining will also unlock new opportunities for the PSIDS to facilitate social and economic development within their countries. 

While deep-sea mining may be more beneficial to the environment than terrestrial mining, enthusiasts should temper their expectations. Deep-sea mining has environmental drawbacks of its own. The prevailing consensus within the scientific community is that deep-sea mining damages aquatic ecosystems and threatens species of organisms that researchers have not yet had the opportunity to study [7]. Since ecosystems are tightly interconnected, a disturbance to organisms in one area of the ocean could detonate a series of catastrophic shockwaves to other ocean habitats. This places endangered marine life at increased risk, which will destroy ecosystems and may contribute to global food shortages. Studies of aquatic communities after deep-sea mining operations show that ecosystems have failed to recover from the effects of mining operations, so even the slightest mistake during an excavation mission could destroy entire habitats. Overall, the environmental implications of deep-sea mining cause permanent and irreversible damage that would not merely be limited to a small portion of the ocean, but would instead have significant global impacts. 

Aside from the negative environmental impacts of deep-sea mining, there is also concern that mining companies may exert political control over the PSIDS. Since many of these island nations are depending on the revenue from deep-sea mining and the clean energy sector to galvanize economic growth, an unbalanced relationship between mining companies and their PSIDS sponsors could be forming. There was evidence of this trend at a 2019 ISA meeting when the leader of The Metals Company spoke on Nauru’s behalf, which shocked many observers [8]. This begs the question on if the PSIDS will be able to constrain the actions of these companies, or if the relationship will be yet another unfortunate case of large companies exploiting developing countries.

Igneous is Bliss

The harmful impact of deep-sea mining has left the ISA with a difficult choice. Ample time to conduct more research and carefully deliberate on the best solution to the issue would be ideal for the creation of adequate parameters on deep-sea mining. Nevertheless, time is not a luxury that the ISA possesses. With private companies threatening to begin mining operations soon, the ISA must act with decisiveness and codify regulations on deep-sea mining. Though deep-sea mining could be beneficial for the global transition to clean energy, the ISA should introduce guidelines that ban any exploitation permits of these seabeds. The scientific research that has been conducted thus far indicates that deep-sea mining will have disastrous impacts on aquatic ecosystems, and there is no guarantee that deep-sea mining will fulfill the lofty benefits that its supporters claim it has. Additionally, recent improvements in battery technology offer a better solution to sustain the global demand for clean energy. Promising developments from battery producing companies has shown that recycled batteries and batteries powered by alternative fuel sources are just as efficient as batteries fueled by heavy metals [9]. These newer batteries would decrease reliance on heavy metals in clean energy production and promote more efficient use of resources, making energy companies less reliant on both terrestrial and deep-sea mining. 

Considering these factors, it is clear that a policy where the ISA does not grant exploitation permits is the best solution to the deep-sea mining dilemma. Continuing to authorize limited and closely monitored exploration operations would allow the ISA to gather more scientific data and assess the risks and benefits of deep-sea mining. Such a process would also grant mining companies the opportunity to prove they are committed to cooperating with regulations necessary for operating in an ethical and environmentally sustainable manner. However, it is far too early to allow these companies to begin extracting minerals from the ocean floor. Deep-sea mining is currently another needless gamble with our planet’s environment; one that we cannot afford to take. 



[1] International Energy Agency. “Clean Energy Demand for Critical Minerals Set to Soar as the World Pursues Net Zero Goals”. May 5, 2021.

[2] Hein, James and Mizell, Kira. Deep-Ocean Polymetallic Nodules and Cobalt-Rich Ferromanganese Crusts in the Global Oceans: New Sources for Critical Metals. Denver: USGS Publications Warehouse, 2017, 10.1163/9789004507388_013.

[3] Murdock, Ryan. “Deep Sea Mining and the Green Transition”. Harvard International Review. October 16, 2023.

[4] Clifford, Catheline. “The Metals Company Announces a Controversial Timeline for Deep Sea Mining That Worsens the Divide in an Already Bitter Battle”. CNBC. August 4, 2023.

[5] Gallagher, Mary Beth. “Understanding the Impact of Deep-Sea Mining”. MIT News. December 5, 2019.

[6] Kelly, Annie. “Children as Young as Seven Mining Cobalt Used in Smartphones, Says Amnesty”. The Guardian. January 18, 2016.

[7] Aust, Chloe. “The Clarion-Clipperton Zone”. Pew Trust. December 15, 2017.

[8]Lyons, Kate. “Mining’s New Frontier: Pacific Nations Caught in the Rush for Deep-Sea Riches”. The Guardian. June 23, 2021.

[9] Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “Deep-Sea Mining: What are the Alternatives?” July 15, 2021.