On 16 March the European Commission presented a proposal for a “Regulation establishing a framework for ensuring a secure and sustainable supply of critical raw materials” (also known as the Critical Raw Materials Act). The proposed regulation aims to “ensure the Union’s access to a secure and sustainable supply of critical raw materials”, which currently hoards 20% of global mineral production for less than 10% of the world’s population.

While Commissioner Thierry Breton had stated when announcing the new regulation in September 2022 that “the cheapest and cleanest raw material is the one we don’t use”, the text that has now been submitted for trialogue discussions with the European Parliament and the European Council has already been widely criticised for failing to address the need to reduce demand as a keystone component of EU raw materials policy.

But a so-far overlooked aspect of the proposal is how it has ignored the many calls issued by NGOs during the initial consultation to explicitly exclude deep-sea mining from its scope. Not only has no such exclusion been incorporated, but the definition of extractive activities that would fall under the scope of the regulation encompasses the “extraction of ores, minerals (…) including from a (…) mineral occurrence under water”.

While “mineral occurrences under water” certainly includes placer deposits found in rivers and coastal areas which are usually targeted through dredging techniques, the general focus of underwater mining for critical raw materials currently lies with deep-sea mining, which targets polymetallic nodules and crusts as well as hydrothermal vents.

If the definition of the Critical Raw Materials Regulation is maintained, this would qualify deep-sea mining operations for recognition as EU Strategic Projects, both within the EU and in third countries. This not only means streamlined approval procedures as part of the granting of “overriding public interest” status, but also priority access to public funding.

Including deep-sea mining within the scope of the proposed regulation stands at odds with the European Commission’s position regarding deep-sea mining. In its June 2022 Joint Communication on the EU’s International Ocean Governance agenda, the Commission went beyond previous calls for a moratorium by openly calling to “prohibit deep-sea mining until scientific gaps are properly filled, no harmful effects arise from mining and the marine environment is effectively protected”. France, Germany and Spain have followed suit, expressing their support for a full ban or a precautionary pause.

Last year the European Investment Bank also included the “extraction of mineral deposits from the deep sea” among bank-wide excluded activities, considering it unacceptable in climate and environmental terms. Such a listing is consistent with the conclusions of the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) guide to financing sustainable ocean recovery, which also excluded deep-sea mining from the definition of a sustainable ocean economy. Paradoxically, the Critical Raw Materials Regulation opens a back door for not only funding but also for fast-tracked permitting for potential seabed mining operations.

Discussions in the months ahead should certainly focus on shifting the regulation’s focus from securing demand to setting binding EU material-footprint reduction targets for the upcoming decades (particularly for metals) and addressing the urgent need to downscale the EU’s economic consumption to meet people’s needs without overshooting the planet’s ecological limits. This is an opportunity for the Commission to demonstrate it is serious in its commitment to stop deep-sea mining before it causes large-scale and irreversible loss of biodiversity through destruction of species, habitats and ecosystems.