In 2016, several deep sea mining events brought a common message: technology is running far ahead of regulation and scientific knowledge. And while European technology developers are pushing hard for pilot test mining, even the economic profitability of deep sea mining is still questionable.
Those messages came through loud and clear in the SAR-DSCC conference earlier this year, as well as in the recent MIDAS final conference and the seminar “Deep-Sea Mining – What next for science?” at the European Parliament. Seas At Risk also attended an international conference on deep sea mining, organised by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (13th December, Berlin), where the results of a study of the potential economic benefits of commercial deep-sea mining in the German license areas. This showed that the economic profitability of deep sea mining is still very uncertain.
There is clearly the ambition among various EU actors (policy makers as well as industry stakeholders) to establish strong European leadership on technology development. To establish this, the European industry is urgently looking for investments in pilot mining tests. Whether or not the EU actually has a leadership position is however rather questionable. In the Berlin conference, for instance, the Korean Research Institute of Ships & Ocean Engineering presented the results of an actual mining test.
The effectiveness of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is another hotly debated issue, with the 2016 periodic review of the Authority pointing to several structural shortcomings in terms of transparency and capacity. With a small staff, that has remained unchanged in size since the 21 years the ISA was created, as well as an extreme lack of environmental and geological expertise in the Legal and Technical Committee, it is clear that the ISA is currently not equipped to fulfil its mandate. And yet under the relentless push of the industry, the ISA will have to put speed up the development of its environmental regulation, even though it is clear that the scientific knowledge that should underpin this is currently completely lacking.
Within the European Commission the policy lead on deep sea mining switched from the directorate general in charge of the sea and maritime activities (DG MARE) to the one in charge of industry and growth (DG GROW), a move that in itself is revealing. At the above events, the Commission invariably preponed the position that “deep sea mining is bound to happen anyway, so we best ensure EU leadership on technology development and push for strong environmental regulation”. The only action the recent Communication “International ocean governance: an agenda for the future of our oceans” includes on deep sea mining is that the Commission will by 2018 “produce guidance on the exploration and exploitation of natural resources on the seabed in areas under national jurisdiction”. Aside from the fact that this seems to be an action outside the Commission's remit, this confirms that the Commission is failing to seriously investigate the actual need for deep sea mining, in blatant disregard of its own circular economy and sustainability ambition.
World-wide NGOs are more and more campaigning for either a moratorium or a ban on deep sea mining, as the call for a ban by German NGOs and the Deep Sea Mining campaign (an association of NGOs and citizens from the Pacific Islands, Australia and Canada) demonstrate. Also Seas At Risk calls for a strong precautionary approach, calling on the EU to set the example and prioritise more sustainable alternatives to deep sea mining. Reducing the demand for raw materials through better product design, sharing, re-use, repairing and recycling and development of new materials is key to the solution. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in particular SDG 12 “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”, and SDG 14 “to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources” set the global frame for rethinking our economy. Unless we stop and think, we risk squandering one of our most precious ecosystems, which has a vital role for our planet, for an obsolete dream of boundless growth.