Regulator says deep-sea mining is a matter of time

Activists at a “Look Down action” rally to stop deep sea mining, outside the European Parliament in Brussels on March 6, 2023.

Kenzo Tribouillard | Afp | Getty Images

It’s likely only a matter of time before scraping the ocean floor for valuable metals becomes a reality, according to the head of the International Seabed Authority, the U.N. regulator that oversees deep-sea mining.

Michael Lodge, secretary-general of the ISA, told CNBC that global interest in deep-sea mining has climbed to levels not seen since the 1970s, with advocates clearly excited by the industry’s potential role in the energy transition.

“One of the main drivers of industrial interest is the potential to produce larger quantities of minerals at equivalent or lower cost to what can be produced on land,” Lodge told CNBC via videoconference.

“That’s the commercial driver and certainly there is vast resource potential in seabed minerals. The question is whether they can in the end be produced economically,” he added.

“But the resource potential is absolutely there. This is clear. The technology is advanced, so it seems like it is possible. And at the same time, it is very clear also that demand for minerals is increasing exponentially and is only going to continue to increase.”

His comments come as the ISA prepares to recommence talks on deep-sea mining in Kingston, Jamaica next month. The seabed watchdog’s forthcoming session will seek to iron out a regulatory framework that, if adopted, would give the go-ahead to deep-sea mining on a commercial scale.

Established 30 years ago, the ISA regulates mining and related activities in an area that covers around 54% of the world’s oceans. The group consists of 168 member states and the European Union. The U.S. is not a member of the ISA.

It hasn’t been done yet so it is very hard to say conclusively that it would be as destructive as some people claim that it would be.

Michael Lodge

Secretary general of the International Seabed Authority

The controversial practice of deep-sea mining involves using heavy machinery to remove minerals and metals — such as cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese — that can be found in potato-sized nodules on the ocean floor. The end-use of these minerals are wide-ranging and include electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and solar panels.

Scientists have warned that the full environmental impacts of deep-sea mining are hard to predict. Environmental campaign groups, meanwhile, say the practice cannot be done sustainably and will inevitably lead to ecosystem destruction and species extinction.

Marine ecosystems

Notably, Norway’s parliament recently voted to approve a government proposal to open a vast ocean area for deep-sea mining on a commercial scale. The decision signaled the Nordic country’s intention to begin deep-sea mining activities in its national waters near the Svalbard archipelago.

To be sure, Norway’s government does not intend to immediately start drilling for minerals. Instead, mining companies will…

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