EU warned about environmental impact of deep seabed mining

BRUSSELS (EURACTIV): Deep seabed mining for minerals used in car batteries and other green technologies should not be permitted in Europe until there is sufficient knowledge on the environmental impact it may cause, said the Portuguese minister of maritime affairs.

“We cannot proceed without proper knowledge and good technology,” said Ricardo Serrão Santos, who spoke at an online event last Friday (25 June).

“We know that we have strong issues for certain environmental impacts of seabed mining,” Santos said at the event, which was organised by the Portuguese EU Presidency and the Mission of Norway to the EU.

“There will be no seabed mining without biodiversity loss for sure,” Santos warned.

In September last year, the European Commission launched an action plan on critical raw materials, with the aim of strengthening the EU’s “strategic autonomy” on metals such as rare earths, which are used in applications ranging from electric car batteries to wind turbines and smart phones.

A new industry alliance was launched at the same time to identify obstacles and investment opportunities at all stages of the raw materials value chain – ranging from mining to processing and waste recovery.

“Demand for critical raw materials will only increase, especially given the ongoing transition to a green and digital economy,” said Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission vice president in charge of foresight, who launched the alliance on 30 September.

The European Commission launched a new industry alliance on Tuesday (30 September) aimed at strengthening the EU’s “strategic autonomy” on raw materials like rare earths, which are considered key for the bloc’s green and digital transitions.

Legal uncertainty

Deep seabed mining is not currently allowed in international waters, but a growing number of countries are looking into it as a chance to retrieve deposits of minerals needed for green technologies such as electric car batteries.

Proponents of deep-sea mining say the extraordinary richness of the underwater ores would result in far lower environmental impacts than mining on land. “Mining deep-sea polymetallic nodules is indeed calculated to release less CO2 per kilogram than mining on land,” says a report commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy.

According to supporters, this would make deep seabed mining the best option to supply a growing global demand for cobalt, copper, nickel, silver, lithium and rare earth elements, which are driven by the green and digital transition.

“I believe that it will occur because there is a lot of pressure from the industry and sometimes with false arguments,” Santos said.

But according to environmental groups, opening new mines should not be considered as the only solution, as many metals can be retrieved by increased recycling.

“Those minerals are not needed in some of the batteries that are being used at the moment by Tesla and Volkswagen etc. so I think that’s really a hoax,” said Jessica Battle, who leads WWF’s No Deep Seabed Mining Initiative.

There are several concerns about the environmental impact of mining at sea.

The most common mining technology uses suction and scraping methods to access mineral deposits in the sediment. But the International Union for Conservation of Nature has warned that the scraping of the seafloor and pollution from the mining process can wipe out entire species.

For example, plumes of sediment created by the process could travel for miles and may suffocate or blind deep sea life, Battle told EURACTIV.

Unbridled deep seabed mining could also undermine other aspects of the so-called blue economy, Battle said.

“There’s so little we know about the deep sea but what we do know is that it holds very interesting genetic compounds that could be good for medicinal, pharmaceutical products and discoveries, but also that it is really important for carbon sequestration,” she added.

While Europe is rapidly catching up with China on investments into batteries for electric cars, it is still lagging behind when it comes to securing supplies of the critical raw materials that are needed to produce them.

Fast-tracking mining

Around the world, more and more countries are looking at deep sea mining as an economic development opportunity.

On Tuesday (29 June), the island nation of Nauru asked the International Seabed Authority – the body in charge of regulating exploration and exploitation on the international seafloor – to fast track the adoption of mining regulations.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, private mining companies must be sponsored by a state in order to do seabed mining.

But the WWF says this would undermine the stakeholder consultation process set in place in the International Seabed Authortity to debate regulations.

“Essentially, it would be fast-tracking deep seabed mining, and setting in motion potentially massive environmental destruction,” warned Battle.

While there is no official EU position on deep seabed mining, the European Commission has taken a cautious stance about it in its biodiversity strategy published in March last year.

“In international negotiations, the EU should advocate that marine minerals in the international seabed area cannot be exploited before the effects of deep-sea mining on the marine environment, biodiversity and human activities have been sufficiently researched” and the risks understood, the EU strategy says.

“In parallel, the EU will continue to fund research on the impact of deep-sea mining activities and on environmentally-friendly technologies,” it adds.

The European Parliament went further. In its report on the biodiversity strategy, it called for EU countries and the European Commission to advocate for a moratorium on mining until there is sufficient research on the impacts.

The European Union “cannot achieve” climate neutrality without critical raw materials like lithium and rare earths, says Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič. It now needs to be “much more strategic” in relations with supplier countries in order to ensure the bloc’s “strategic autonomy,” he argues.

Meanwhile, Norway has chosen a more liberal approach. In January, Oslo began the process of allowing mining in its own waters.

While more knowledge is needed about the process, there is also an increasing need for minerals for the green transition, argues Jens Frølich Holte, state secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the representative to the High-level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy.

“What we need to reflect upon here is that the green transition will require a lot of minerals in order to achieve it and also the EU has stated clearly that you want some kind of strategic autonomy on resources as well,” he explained.

Environmental groups have criticised Norway’s mining push, citing the country’s position as co-chair of the High-level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, which emitted reservations about deep seabed mining.

In a report, the panel said deep seabed mining “is conceptually difficult to align with the definition of a sustainable ocean economy” and raises various environmental, legal and governance challenges, as well as possible conflicts with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“Recent science clearly states that greater knowledge of the environmental impacts, as well as the ability to mitigate these to acceptable levels” are needed, the report concludes.