The case against seabed mining
Seabed mining proponents are promoting mining the seafloor as ‘necessary’ to meet demand for metals and minerals for renewable energy components in the ‘green transition’ away from fossil fuels. This is greenwash and reflective of a continuing extractive and dominating approach to nature criticised by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’:
Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. (para 106)
Caritas has been following seabed mining and prospecting around Oceania since 2014 as one of several issues through our State of the Environment for Oceania report series. After seven years of urging caution and seeking a moratorium on seabed mining until more was known about impacts, last year Caritas in Oceania called for an allout ban on seabed mining and exploration due to the deeply held concerns of Church and community representatives. We oppose seabed mining on three main grounds:
- it will destroy marine life and ecosystems where seabed mining takes place, and have as yet unknown impacts over a much wider area;
- indigenous and coastal communities most affected do not want it;
- it is not needed - the current and predicted worldwide demand for minerals must be addressed in other ways such as recycling, urban ‘mining’ of discarded waste, substitution of substances or technology, as well as addressing human greed for more and often unnecessary ‘things’.
Prospective seabed mining companies are interested in the territorial and economic zones of Pacific nations, as well as international waters in various locations around the Pacific Ocean, especially the Clarion-Clipperton Zone northeast of Kiribati. The United Nations’ International Seabed Authority (ISA) is responsible for monitoring and licensing seabed exploration and mining in international waters, including ensuring benefits are shared with developing countries. Any company exploring or mining in international waters needs the sponsorship of a nation state. However, there are concerns that the ISA has a conflict of interest (it will benefit from seabed mining royalties), and is not being transparent enough in developing rules and regulations for mining.
In the deep sea, potential mining interests are interested in three different types of environments: cobalt-rich crusts, seafloor massive sulphides which form round hot-water vents, and mineral nodules. The last are receiving most attention currently as companies promote them as being able to be easily plucked or ‘harvested’ from the seafloor with little damage to the surrounding environment. However, a May 2020 review of scientific literature available on this matter concluded “that the impacts of nodule mining in the Pacific Ocean would be extensive, severe and last for generations, causing essentially irreversible damage.”
Scientists say there is a lack of knowledge about deep-sea marine environment, which hampers credible policy and regulatory development on deep-sea mining. More research is needed to assess the impacts of on marine wildlife, as well as the wider marine environment, climate change and the global ecosystem.
As documented in the Caritas State of the Environment Report for Oceania 2015, when explorations for seabed mining took place in Papua New Guinea waters in 2008-2010, schools of dead tuna washed up on nearby beaches. Dogs wouldn’t eat the dead fish, as they normally do. However, the cause could not be properly investigated by the fisheries department, due to transport and communication limitations.
Caritas’ stance on seabed mining has come mainly from listening to our community-based sources and partners. Communities in Papua New Guinea fought for more than 10 years to try to stop the world’s first deep sea mine, 30 kilometres off the coast of New Ireland. Plans for that mine have collapsed, but it has left the Papua New Guinea government with a massive debt, while the communities continue to battle the extension of exploration licences in the area, supported by Caritas Kavieng in Papua New Guinea. (Caritas State of the Environment for Oceania 2020)
Over the years, Church leaders in the Pacific have been outspoken against seabed mining, as documented in Caritas reports.
In April 2017, Cardinal Sir John Ribat from Papua New Guinea, called on all Pacific governments to ban seabed mining. “The ocean is home to people living around coastal areas and islands. … And that is why it is vital we highlight the importance of our lives in association with the sea.… We also don’t know how long it will take for the ocean to heal itself after the destruction the seabed mining will cause.” (Caritas State of the Environment for Oceania 2017).
In March 2020, Caritas Papua New Guinea Director Mavis Tito said seabed mining posed a severe threat. “There is no legal framework for deep sea mining in PNG, no mitigation plans in place, and locals’ livelihood and traditional/cultural practices are affected. We want it completely banned. We do not want our ocean floors disturbed.”
In March 2021, Pacific civil society opposition to seabed mining in the Pacific coalesced around the “Pacific Blue Line” statement against seabed mining, which Caritas has endorsed. The statement calls for a global ban on exploration and mining for seafloor minerals, because of the damage it will do to ocean ecosystems and marine life.
Read the full statement and sign the petition here.
by Martin de Jong, Advocacy Advisor, Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand