Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Ethics of Deep Sea Mining

by David Ovadia*

David Ovadia is an IAPG member, former coordinator of IAPG-UK.

Picture source: MIT Mechanical Engineering

David Ovadia
I am reading a lot in the media at the moment about marine mining [1], generally not in its favour and I am left wondering about the geoethics of this growing area of interest. It is fairly safe to say that most people are not enamoured with any sort of mining, especially if it is near their back yard (the so-called NIMBY view), although those same people continue to consume in ever greater quantities the products from mines. So it might be logical to suggest that if mining is moved to the deep ocean, a long way from any human’s back yard, this would be welcomed and by association the geoscientists who are part of the mining industry could be thought to be acting more ethically. It seems not to be the case.

The issues are well summarised in a web site published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) [2], which reminds us that deep sea mining is not a new concept. In the 1960s the prospect of deep sea mining was brought up by Mero [3]. His book claimed that nearly limitless supplies of cobalt, nickel and other metals could be found throughout the planet's oceans. Various forms of resource extraction from on or under the sea bed have been carried out for many years, principally for offshore (sea bed) hydrocarbons but also in pursuit of diamonds offshore Namibia and, more controversially and less successfully, gold from offshore Papua New Guinea [4], amongst other examples.

The new interest is in utilising the mineral rich nodules that exist in some of the deepest parts of the ocean, and it differs in several ways from existing or historical offshore extractions, principally in that the proposed resource recovery would not be taking place in any nation’s territorial waters and therefore neither of direct interest or benefit to a single producing country, nor easily regulated by that nation. As with any loosely controlled activity, there might be little regard for consequential or collateral damage and the long, hard won gains that now mitigate the negatives of most conventional mining would not necessarily be applied. Put another way, the geoscientists involved could find themselves being put under commercial pressure to forego their usual ethical considerations.

On the other hand, as geologists are so fond of saying, the minerals recovered may, amongst other things, contribute to a more rapid and widespread use of electric vehicles to replace polluting petrol engines, which seems to be an ethically good thing to do.

This very short blog is not intended to provide any answers but merely to raise the question as to what position should an organisation such as the IAPG take on deep sea mining and, perhaps, to stimulate a discussion on this subject. There is probably no simple or short answer.



Other articles published in the IAPG Blog:

IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics

1 comment:

  1. The jobs-versus-environment argument that is always made by mining companies is flawed for several reasons. One is that there is never consideration of long-term impacts. If we accounted for all costs, the value of the ephemeral jobs created would pale in comparison to the environmental costs given the way mining is done today. Another is that these metals can be recovered from other sources, such as through recycling. The cost to produce might be higher, and the volumes lower, but that would serve only to nudge designers and manufacturers to create consumer goods that 1) were more efficient in their use of raw materials, and 2) were designed to fit within a circular economy. Yet another reason is that there is not now and never has been any real "need" to acquire more of the same minerals we already have built within existing infrastructure. "Want" is not the same as "need." If we held mining companies (and all other industries) to higher sustainability standards, we could have what we "need" and save the planet, too. Deep-sea mining is a special problem because the environmental damage is largely out of sight. We should not allow mining where we cannot monitor its impact and provide mitigation. The cost of our communal ignorance is too great. That mining and other companies can now operate without accounting for all social and environmental costs is the real problem.