In the not too distant future, our children’s children will wonder how their grandfathers could ever have submitted to something so dangerous and deadly as coal mining. For centuries, coal has pushed civilization forward as we burned it for the fuel that sustained our technology, but in the process of digging it out of the Earth, men were crushed, killed and crippled by black lung. And it is only in recent decades that scientists have managed to explain how harmful burning this fossil fuel is to the health of the planet. Its carbon emissions are heating up the atmosphere, its particulate smog contributes to strokes and cancers and its sludge is contaminating valuable water sources.
We know coal is bad for us now, and the world’s top polluters see the writing on the wall. But the public at large doesn’t know enough about deep sea mining. Again, when our children’s children look back on previous generations, they will be puzzled (if not resentful) that their grandfathers didn’t stop themselves from doing incalculable harm to the planet and humanity as a whole.
At the end of this week, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) will vote on a new Secretary-General. If you’ve never heard of the ISA before, and haven’t the foggiest what impact it could possibly have on you, that’s understandable. It is a little known United Nations body based in Kingston, Jamaica, and established in 1994 pursuant to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982). Basically, it’s supposed to look after the mineral resources that exist on the deep seabed beyond areas of national jurisdiction.
That’s all fine and dandy, but the likely candidate for the new Secretary-General of the ISA, Michael Lodge (legal council and deputy to the current Secretary-General), is believed to be in favor of industrial exploitation of the seabed between 3,000 and 5,000 meters. Again, what goes on 3,000 meters (or 9,750 feet) below your shoes seems like a remote issue for concern. It’s not.
There are three good reasons why deep sea mining could ruin your future.
1) It Will Influence Further Climate Change
Most of the sun’s radiation is absorbed by the planet’s seas. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts it, “the ocean acts as a massive heat-retaining solar panel.” Its ocean currents transport warm water and precipitation from the equator to the poles and cold water from the poles to the tropics. In a nutshell, it distributes the heat that hits the planet.
When heavy machinery gets down to the ocean floor, it causes erosion, acidification and toxification of the seabed and surrounding waters. This plays havoc with wildlife and can destroy the ecosystem, with ripple effects that grow increasingly more dangerous as they travel up the food chain. This disruption, coupled with the accelerating impact of ocean warming and ocean acidification, will alter how the ocean behaves. Its ability to absorb heat and redistribute that heat will be reduced, and heavy industry on the deep ocean floor threatens to loose vast amounts of thermal energy and carbon dioxide stored in the depths.
According to a report published in the November 2015 issue of Science, the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon “provid[es] a critical buffer to climate change,” but blows to its biodiversity, combined with climate changes already taking place, may “compromise key ocean services that maintain a healthy planet and human livelihoods.”
When a forest is razed to the ground, companies can at least plant seeds for more trees. Conversely, ocean habitats in the abyss are not only more delicate, they are extremely slow to recover.
2) The Oceans Could Hold the Secret to Treating Cancer
That’s always the pipe dream of the conservationist, isn’t it? Don’t cut down the rainforest because an unknown super medicine may be just on the verge of discovery. Don’t rip up the ocean floor, because there’s so much down there we still haven’t seen. It’s a story you’ve probably heard before, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
The chance of us discovering what the seabed has to offer is now shrinking by the day. In April of this year, mining industry stakeholders met at the Fifth Deep Sea Mining Summit in London. According to a source attending ISA’s annual meeting this week, the stakeholders met to discuss their latest technologies and divide extraction claims amongst themselves. And it is worrying that 35 percent of the ISA’s board – an intergovernmental body intended to regulate all mineral-related activities on the international seabed – is comprised of industry members.
“The ISA grants 15-year exploitation and exploration licenses to multinational corporations for $500,000 plus proportional annual fees, and participates in profits rather than emphasizing and controlling the environmental impacts of the operations,” our source writes.
Applications for licenses are handled by ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission, consisting of 24 members that are selected, according to the ISA, by “personal qualifications relevant to the exploration, exploitation and processing of mineral resources, oceanography, economic and/or legal matters relating to mining.”
“[N]ote that ecological issues are not listed,” the source added. “Although created as a UN legislation body, the ISA is hidden away in Jamaica and relatively untransparent to the public. Its structure and activities clearly favor the interests of high net worth multinational corporations, and are not primarily the common heritage of mankind.”
Dr. Sylvia Earle, noted marine biologist and the founder of Mission Blue, had this to say about seabed exploitation:
“It’s like a land grab. It’s a handful of individuals who are giving away or letting disproportionate special interests have access to large parts of the planet that just happen to be underwater. The vast expanses of the central Pacific seabed being opened up for mining are still largely an unknown. What are we sacrificing by looking at the deep sea with dollar signs on the few tangible materials that we know are there? We haven’t begun to truly explore the ocean before we have started aiming to exploit it.”
3) Ocean Health Is Closely Linked to Human Health
For all the reasons above, it should be clear that what affects the ocean also affects the human race. Unfortunately, the ocean’s size and its historic bounty have hidden the damage we inflict on it. Case in point:
- The ocean is running out of oxygen, resulting in the formation of dead zones that choke marine life.
- The ocean is becoming too acidic to sustain shellfish.
- The ocean is becoming increasingly warmer, leading to the death of wildlife, bleaching coral, rises in sea levels and the formation of stronger hurricanes.
- The ocean is quickly filling up with more plastic than fish…
- …in part because we can’t stop overfishing.
The ocean doesn’t just regulate the planet’s temperature, it doesn’t just feed us, it also produces most of our oxygen. Marine plants produce about 70 percent of the Earth’s oxygen, compared to the 28 percent produced by rainforests. And now mining companies want to tear up the ocean floor.
Should I even mention the Deepwater Horizon, the second-largest oil disaster in history, in which 210 million gallons of crude oil leaked from a broken well and 11 men lost their lives? Chemicals dispersed to clean the mess are still sickening locals and wildlife to this day.
The issue may be even more pressing than this already dreary tirade would have you believe. Emails belonging to Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and now Democratic Presidential nominee, reveal that Mrs. Clinton “intervened in a request from her son-in-law on behalf of a deep-sea mining firm to meet with her or other agency officials while she was secretary of state,” according to AP.
It is not known if this meeting (with Florida-based firm Neptune Minerals Inc.) took place, but the request occurred at the same time that President Obama was trying to pass a regulation that would have helped U.S. companies to mine in international waters. Given this evidence, and Clinton’s swift flip-flop on the need for more coal mining, the seabed seems to be fair game for Democratic leaders.
“If you wipe out large areas of seafloor and cause species extinction,” says University of Hawaii Professor Dr. Craig Smith, co-author of a paper calling for adequate environmental protections for deep sea mining, “[and] do it on a large enough scale, you actually change the future of life on Earth.”
On July 21, ISA will complete its annual meeting and choose its next Secretary-General. You can join the international movement to oppose seabed development by signing this petition from Avaaz. The petition is addressed to ISA Secretary General Nii Allotey Odunton, members of the ISA Assembly, Council and Committees and relevant ministers:
“As citizens concerned about the health of our oceans, we call on you to agree to a moratorium on seabed mining unless and until independent scientists agree it is safe, and the ISA dramatically increases transparency and access for all meetings and reports. To date the ISA has been biased towards facilitating seabed mining. As the global steward of the world’s ocean heritage, it must instead prioritize conservation and the rights of coastal communities.”
Deep sea mining. It ain’t good. So if you don’t know, now you know.