PublicationMagazine Article Don’t Look Down: The Case Against Deep Seabed Mining

October 25, 2022
Publication Type:
Magazine Article
OCTOBER 25, 2022 1:15 PM EDT
Seldom do we have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to stop an envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis before it begins. This is one of those oppor­tu­ni­ties. The min­ing indus­try is on the brink of exca­vat­ing the deep ocean, cre­at­ing a new envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter with irre­versible con­se­quences for our ocean and cli­mate. We urgent­ly need a deep-sea min­ing mora­to­ri­um to thought­ful­ly assess the full impact before a new cri­sis is created.

Deep-sea min­ing would wreak enor­mous dam­age. Mas­sive machines dig­ging, dredg­ing, and vac­u­um­ing up the ocean floor would cre­ate huge sed­i­ment plumes deep in the ocean that will drift on cur­rents, smoth­er­ing marine life, includ­ing species not yet dis­cov­ered. Sur­face-lev­el pro­cess­ing ships would dump tailings—the waste mate­ri­als left after the tar­get min­er­al is extract­ed from ore—back into the ocean, killing plant and ani­mal life as it drifts through the water col­umn, releas­ing acidic and tox­ic sed­i­ment haz­ardous to fish and those who con­sume it. This process would dis­rupt the ocean’s vast nat­ur­al car­bon cap­ture and seques­tra­tion sys­tem, and release green­house gas from the seabed floor, accel­er­at­ing cli­mate change.

The rea­son for this enor­mous destruc­tion is simple—so a few min­ing com­pa­nies can reap a prof­it. But this motive is hid­den behind a clever green­wash­ing campaign.

The min­ing com­pa­nies’ jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for deep-sea min­ing is based on a big lie—that we need deep-ocean min­er­als for elec­tric car bat­ter­ies and the tran­si­tion to green ener­gy. We don’t. New longer-last­ing car bat­ter­ies are becom­ing avail­able that don’t need deep sea min­er­als, includ­ing bat­ter­ies based on graphene alu­minum-ion, lithi­um-iron phos­phate, iron-flow, and sol­id-state tech­nolo­gies. We also have the option of low-cost, no-impact extrac­tion of bat­tery mate­ri­als, such as lithi­um and cobalt, direct­ly from sea­wa­ter. And impor­tant­ly, a cir­cu­lar econ­o­my that pri­or­i­tizes reduc­ing, reusing, and recy­cling crit­i­cal min­er­als can pow­er the clean ener­gy tran­si­tion with­out deep-sea mining—and at a low­er cost. Car bat­tery recy­cling is already a rapid­ly grow­ing indus­try. Per­haps the best evi­dence that deep-sea min­ing is need­less is the strong mes­sage from the elec­tric vehi­cle indus­try: for­ward-think­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers includ­ing BMW, Vol­vo, Volk­swa­gen, Renault, and Riv­ian are sup­port­ing the moratorium.

Min­ing com­pa­nies are rapid­ly advanc­ing their efforts to begin deep-sea min­ing through their pow­er­ful influ­ence on a lit­tle-known, secre­tive orga­ni­za­tion in Jamaica, the Inter­na­tion­al Seabed Author­i­ty. This autonomous orga­ni­za­tion has been man­dat­ed to over­see the world’s deep-sea resources “for the ben­e­fit of mankind as a whole.” But it’s become a clas­sic case of the fox guard­ing the chick­en coop. Much of the ISA’s oper­a­tions are con­duct­ed behind closed doors and include ques­tion­able deals with select­ed min­ing com­pa­nies. Through opaque process­es, the rights to the world’s deep-ocean resources are being auc­tioned off for the ben­e­fit of a few min­ing com­pa­nies with scant regard for the rights of the rest of the world.

Deep-sea min­ing is not a dis­tant threat—it’s a clear and present dan­ger. The ISA has already issued min­ing explo­ration con­tracts cov­er­ing a stag­ger­ing 1 mil­lion square kilo­me­ters (400,000 square miles) of the Pacif­ic Ocean, and is prepar­ing to issue licens­es to start large-scale min­ing as ear­ly as July, 2023. The ISA knows the oppo­si­tion to deep-sea min­ing is grow­ing as more peo­ple become aware of the threat and is now rush­ing for­ward the approval process. On Sep­tem­ber 7, the ISA autho­rized the min­ing of 7.2 mil­lion pounds of poly­metal­lic nod­ules in a “col­lec­tor test.” That oper­a­tion is now underway.

Urgent action by the U.S. is crit­i­cal to stop deep-sea min­ing. We call on Pres­i­dent Biden, sup­port­ed by Spe­cial Envoy for Cli­mate John Ker­ry, to express sup­port of the mora­to­ri­um at the upcom­ing cli­mate change con­fer­ence, COP27, and to use the resources of his admin­is­tra­tion to halt this need­less destruction.

The Unit­ed Nations should also take action. It should pro­tect the ocean and its resources for all humankind—not allow it to be sac­ri­ficed for the prof­its of a few. We can­not allow the ISA, as it is cur­rent­ly run, to gov­ern the fate of the world’s last glob­al com­mons: the deep sea. The U.N. and its Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al António Guter­res should pub­licly sup­port the mora­to­ri­um and take action to bring the rogue ISA back in line with the val­ues of the U.N.


Sylvia Ear­le served as the Chief Sci­en­tist at the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion. She is the founder of Deep Ocean Explo­ration and Research, a Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Explor­er in Res­i­dence, Founder of Mis­sion Blue, and an Ocean Elder. 

Twit­ter: @SylviaEarle

Daniel Kam­men is the James and Kather­ine Lau Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Sus­tain­abil­i­ty at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley where he directs the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Ener­gy Lab­o­ra­to­ry. He has served as Chief Tech­ni­cal Spe­cial­ist for Renew­able Ener­gy at the World Bank, and Sci­ence Envoy in the Oba­ma Administration.

Twit­ter: @dan_​kammen


For the Blue Cli­mate Initiative’s infor­ma­tion and cam­paign for a mora­to­ri­um on on deep seabed min­ing, see here:


Main Menu

Energy & Resources Group
310 Barrows Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-3050
Phone: (510) 642-1640
Fax: (510) 642-1085


  • Open the Main Menu
  • People at RAEL

  • Open the Main Menu