“We can go out and do it if you sons of bitches will get out of the way,” said Dillard S. Hammett, vice president of the offshore-drilling company Sedco Inc., in an edition of New Scientist, published on December 9, 1982.
Hammett was referring to delays in plans to mine metal-rich rocks from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. At the time, Sedco and other companies were hoping to launch a deep-sea mining industry, but by that point they had been held back by more than a decade of negotiations at the United Nations over the question of who owns the seabed.
Nearly 40 years later, deep-sea mining still hasn’t begun. But an announcement late last month by Lionel Aingimea, president of the small Pacific-island state of Nauru, carried a similar sentiment to Hammett’s charmless threat, and it could bully the industry into existence—fast.
The government of Nauru, working with its seabed-mining contractor, Nauru Ocean Resources Inc., a subsidiary of the Metals Company (T.M.C.), has triggered a contentious provision in international law that could force seabed mining to begin in distant waters of the Pacific within two years.
This decision would go against the advice and warnings of scientists, NGOs, and sustainability-minded politicians. It forestalls years of multi-national negotiations over how to manage and protect the seabed.
It also coincides with a series of damning reports released in recent weeks about T.M.C., a public company founded earlier this year through the merger of DeepGreen and Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation, and its C.E.O., Gerard Barron, that raises troubling questions about his professed commitment to protecting the planet—and his dominance over the nascent deep-sea-mining industry.
The deep ocean is the single biggest interconnected habitat on earth. Averaging two and a half miles deep, and reaching nearly seven miles at its greatest depth, it contains a vast storehouse of biodiversity, from corals that live for millennia to intricate jelly creatures, much of which remains unexplored. It supports vital planetary functions, such as the cascade of carbon, whereby tens of billions of tons are removed each year from the atmosphere and sunk into deep seabed stores.
For now, the deep is relatively unspoiled. But it’s also uniquely sensitive to human impacts. Seabed mining would impose a colossal new footprint, one from which the ocean is unlikely to recover within human timescales. It would erase biodiversity and create noise and light pollution and sedimentation, threatening life well beyond the boundaries of the mines themselves (fisheries fed by deep-derived nutrients, for instance, not to mention a livable climate).
Gerard Barron’s branding team have been crafting a story of green redemption that holds immense influence over the global narrative of seabed mining. T.M.C. refers to it as “harvesting,” even though the rocky nodules they wish to exploit have not been sown by human hands and are not renewable—it takes 10 million years for a nodule to grow from the size of a pea to that of a golf ball.
T.M.C.’s is ostensibly a worthy cause: the metals they plan to produce from polymetallic rocks would be used to power electric vehicles. But that doesn’t mean that the process itself is green in any way.
Barron told me he considers himself an environmentalist. He is likely one of the only self-professed environmentalists who have made a good deal of money from the deep-sea-mining industry. He invested in Nautilus Minerals when it was planning to open the world’s first deep-sea mine, targeting hydrothermal vents off Papua New Guinea. Barron reportedly turned a $226,000 investment into $31 million, cashing out a good while before the company went bankrupt, in 2019.
Barron has referred to the seafloor he wishes to mine as a marine desert, contrary to mounting scientific studies, which suggest it is more similar to species-rich aquatic prairies. He insists that deep-sea metals, such as nickel and cobalt, are essential for a transition to a global green economy, in particular for the building of a billion electric-vehicle batteries—this despite recent actions by Samsung SDI, Volvo, and BMW to support a mining moratorium and exclude seabed metals from their supply chain.
A recent report in The Wall Street Journal revealed that Barron’s grand efforts to paint his company green have paid off. New investors, eager to back environmental initiatives, are throwing their money behind T.M.C. Currently valued at $2.9 billion, the company is reportedly set to receive another $600 million in investor cash in the coming months.
This is part of a larger trend. With BlackRock’s Larry Fink favoring environmental, social, and corporate-governance (E.S.G.) funds, the pressure is on for wealthy investors to manage their money with an eye toward protecting the planet. For a lot of people, as long as it sounds good, it works for them.
Back in December of 1982, the day after Hammett’s statement in New Scientist, the U.N.’s Law of the Sea Convention designated the seabed in the high seas, more than 200 nautical miles from any nation’s shores, as the “common heritage of mankind.” Any benefits gleaned from this enormous area must be shared among all of humanity.
Decades later, this idea of common heritage feels Utopian. T.M.C. has signaled its good intentions—or just flashed its shrewd marketing muscle—by working closely with small, impoverished states such as the South Pacific’s Tonga, Kiribati, and Nauru. These countries gain a cut of mining revenues in return for applying to the International Seabed Authority for permits.
In order to mine the seabed, private companies must be sponsored by a state. It transpires that while the Nauru government is prepared to help T.M.C. by triggering the mining loophole and securing the permits, they have also put themselves at risk by signing deals with the company.
Documents revealed last month show that, should any accidents or disasters occur during mining operations, Nauru and the other South Pacific island states could be liable for the cleanup.
The deals also leave those nations virtually powerless over T.M.C. and how they operate. And as demonstrated during recent field trials by another company—when a scaled-down prototype mining robot became disconnected from its mother ship—accidents will almost certainly happen with heavy machinery operating several miles beneath the surface of the ocean.
The first wave of deep-sea mining was abandoned in the 1980s because corporations decided it wasn’t worth the effort and expense. Today, in addition to those burdens, we know much more about its negative effects on the environment, making this second wave all the more alarming.
T.M.C. is just one of 22 corporations that want to mine the deep sea, but it’s the only one planning to go public soon. It’s raking in funds and is deeply involved in Nauru’s demands for the world’s first high-seas mining permit.
Green investors must demand answers about where their money is going. And member states to the International Seabed Authority, especially the quiet ones, need to step up to their official remit of protecting the deep ocean from harm and vote to withhold mining permits for at least the 10-year moratorium proposed by hundreds of expert scientists—the ones who really know what’s going on down there.
Helen Scales is a marine scientist and author of The Brilliant Abyss, out now from Atlantic Monthly Press. She also co-hosts the Catch Our Drift podcast, on which she interviewed Gerard Barron