Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images
A federal court settlement requires the government to assess the impact of strip-mining the ocean floor before issuing exploration permits to companies.
David Kirby | Take Part | 1 December 2016
Donald Trump is still seven weeks away from taking office, but when it comes to permitting the controversial practice of deep-sea mining, the incoming administration’s hands are already tied.
On Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity announced it has settled a federal court lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce, in a move that will compel federal officials to conduct in-depth assessments of the risks to wildlife and underwater ecosystems before issuing permits for the exploration of the ocean floor for rare-earth metals and minerals.
The settlement’s terms will be binding on the Trump Administration, said Emily Jeffers, an attorney for the environmental group. Trump’s campaign website does not mention deep-sea mining, although it does call for opening offshore leasing and eliminating all “wasteful and unnecessary regulation.”
“He wants to ramp up coal production and is not concerned about the impact of strip mining and mountaintop removal, so it makes me think he wouldn’t be afraid to strip-mine the ocean floor,” Jeffers said of the president elect.
The Trump transition team and NOAA did not respond to requests for comment.
The Center for Biological Diversity sued the federal government in 2015 over its extension of two exploratory permits for a Lockheed Martin subsidiary that wants to conduct deep-sea mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, halfway between Mexico and Hawaii.
NOAA extended those permits without conducting the necessary environmental assessments required by federal law, the lawsuit alleged.
Deep-sea mining is still in the development phase worldwide, and no country or company has yet mined the ocean floor for the estimated billions of dollars’ worth of gold, nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc, and other rare-earth metals and minerals resting up to a mile under the sea.
Improved extraction technologies and skyrocketing prices for these materials, fueled by the consumer electronics boom, have made seafloor mining increasingly attractive. Mining companies around the world now have exploration licenses on more than 930,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean floor.
But many scientists warn that deep-sea mining, and even exploration for potential sites, can damage marine ecosystems.
“A close analogy to deep sea mining, strip mining on land, has had many ill effects on wildlife and human health,” the lawsuit states. “Similarly, deep seabed mineral mining could disrupt marine communities throughout the ocean.”
“Because of the novelty of deep seabed mining and the potentially severe environmental effects, diligence in analyzing and processing licenses and permits is especially critical,” it continues.
Deep-sea mining scrapes minerals off the seafloor “like a bulldozer, which destroys seabed habitat,” the environmental group’s attorneys wrote. Mining machinery emits noise that can disturb or even harm marine mammals and churns up sediment plumes that smother seafloor organisms and release nutrients that produce toxic algae blooms. Waste released in the process can cloud water and reduce photosynthesis and productivity, and toxic heavy metals in sediment plumes readily enter the food chain.
Light and noise from mining ships, meanwhile, “can disrupt seabird behavior and result in exhaustion or death, and vessel collisions risk harming whales and other marine mammals,” the lawsuit says.
According to the settlement, NOAA agreed to “conduct an environmental analysis…if and when NOAA authorizes Lockheed Martin to conduct at-sea, phase II, exploration activities.”
The company is still in its first phase, which is limited to onshore analyses of seafloor data and global commodity prices.
“We wanted to make sure that any activities at sea required a thorough environmental review, and we weren’t clear that actually was going to happen,” Jeffers said.
Seafloor exploration has many of the same problems as actual mining, she said. “Exploration has a lesser degree of damage that would result from extraction. But they do have to take samples and disrupt the sediment.”
“I think it’s a good first step,” Jeffers said of the settlement. “Deep-sea mining is going to be, in the next 10 to 20 years, a very significant issue with serious environmental ramifications, and I think we need to start thinking now about whether we want to allow this type of activity to happen.”
“At the very least,” she added, “we need to ensure we do adequate environmental review so we know the type of damage that will result from strip-mining the ocean floor.”