Campaign group intervenes over UK exploration licences for Lockheed Martin
Henry Sanderson| Financial Times | 3 July 2019
Deep-sea mining risks “severe and potentially irreversible” environmental harm and the UK should prioritise protecting the ocean rather than extracting minerals from it, Greenpeace, the campaigning group, said.
The government has awarded deep-sea exploration licences to a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, which could lead to deep-sea mining despite Westminster being aware of the environmental risks, said Greenpeace.
David Cameron promised as prime minister in 2013 that deep-sea mining would generate £40bn for the UK economy over the next 30 years. But Greenpeace said it is unclear what this figure includes.
It pointed out that in 2017 the government’s deep-sea mining working group was shown a report by the National Subsea Research Initiative, a research body, warning of the environmental impact on the seabed.
“The activities involved in subsea mining could have detrimental impacts on localised populations as well as an impact on world oceans through the potential extinction of unique species which form the first rung of the food chain,” said the report, which was commissioned by Scottish Enterprise and seen by Greenpeace through a Freedom of Information request.
The UN-backed International Seabed Authority, which regulates all mineral activities in international waters, has given countries, including the UK, 29 licences to explore the oceans, covering an area of 1.3m sq km, or five times the surface area of Britain. But mining cannot begin until regulations, currently being negotiated, are agreed. The ISA expects to have finished them by July 2020.
The UK government in 2013 granted Seabed Resources, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary, the rights to explore 133,000 sq km of the ocean it had received from the ISA. Seabed Resources said it was waiting for the regulations to be approved before assessing the viability of mining at the sites.
Daniel Jones, a principal researcher at the National Oceanography Center, said scientists still do not know enough about life in the deep sea compared to life on land.
“We are finding out a lot more but we can’t answer how organisms will respond to disturbance from deep-sea mining without doing experimentation on the sea floor,” he said. “We are missing quite important information.”
A spokesman for the UK government said: “The UK continues to press for the highest international environmental standards, including on deep-sea mineral extraction. We have sponsored two exploration licences, which allows scientific marine research to fully understand the effects of deep-sea mining. We will not issue a single exploitation licence without a full assessment of the environmental impact.”
Deep-sea mining has had a chequered history. The first company to try to mine the deep sea, Nautilus Minerals, was delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange in March after financial difficulties. The company had planned to mine around Papua New Guinea.
But last month Deep Green, a deep-sea mining start-up, said it had raised the bulk of the $150m it needed to press ahead with plans to collect mineral-rich nodules from the floor of the Pacific for metals such nickel and cobalt used in electric-car batteries. The company is backed by miner Glencore as well as shipping giant Maersk.
DeepGreen said “it is built with a deep appreciation and respect for ocean health and the earth’s environment”.