Diving into the History of Seabed Mining

A photograph of manganese nodules on the seafloor

If you visit the website of Nautilus Minerals, a multinational mining company based in Canada, you can read a remarkable story. Resting at the bottom of the ocean is a bounty of riches. It’s not the buried treasure of pirate tales, but it’s about as close as you can get. Gold deposits, extruded from hydrothermal vents over thousands of years, are waiting to be harvested from the ocean floor. And Nautilus Minerals is poised to hoist them to the surface and make the company rich.

That is, if it ever happens. The company’s initial project, Solwara 1, located in the Bismarck Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea, has recently run into trouble. In January, Nautilus Minerals admitted it was desperately seeking short-term financing to cover its massive debts. In March, several of its directors resigned, and the company was delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange soon after. Now, it looks like some of the company’s investors are trying to get out while they still can.

An illustrated diagram of a mining vessel extracting minerals from the ocean floor.

The nascent industry of seabed mining promises dreams of underwater resources, but the reality is more complex. Photo by GRID Arandal, 2014.

For the moment, Nautilus Minerals seems less poised to strike it rich than to sink like a stone. Yet the problems with Solwara 1 notwithstanding, mining companies are unlikely to abandon the seabed altogether. Media coverage of the nascent industry appears to agree. Most press accounts portray seabed mining as all but inevitable, the product of a benign combination of technological innovation and economic opportunity.

Even so, there are good reasons to remain skeptical of the practice’s technological feasibility and financial viability. Despite the mining industry’s claims, the promise of seabed mining has for years gone unrealized, thwarted by a host of financial obstacles and legal challenges. Yet the continued insistence that seabed mining is just around the corner should raise alarm bells for anyone concerned with the fate of the oceans, and the communities that depend on them, in a rapidly warming world.

Can seabed mining help reduce economic inequality in the world, or will it merely open another frontier of resource extraction? Can the practice be safely pursued, or will it necessarily harm marine ecosystems already impacted by global warming, overfishing, and pollution? Can hauling minerals from the sea floor help communities adapt to climate change, or will it only create further obstacles? To better understand these thorny questions, we need to place seabed mining in its historical context.

The Origins and History of Seabed Mining

Today, when people speak of seabed mining, they generally refer to the practice of using specialized technology and expertise to remove valuable minerals from the deep ocean. These minerals typically occur in one of three ways: seafloor massive sulfides extruded from hydrothermal vents, ferromanganese (or cobalt-rich) crusts formed along seamounts, and most notably, polymetallic (or manganese) nodules resting on the abyssal plain.

Each of these forms contain varying levels of strategic minerals, such as nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese. Often, these deposits hold mineral content far exceeding those available from land-based sources. For example, the polymetallic nodules found in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, an area of the abyssal plain that stretches between Hawai‘i and Mexico, contain roughly ten times the amount of manganese available on land.

Manganese nodules were first discovered in the 1870s during the Challenger expedition, the scientific mission that laid the foundation for modern oceanography. But commercial interest in the resource didn’t appear until the mid-20th century. Much of this interest originated with the American engineer John L. Mero, who first raised the idea in a 1960 article for Scientific American and in a later book, The Mineral Resources of the Sea. Companies like Kennecott Copper and U.S. Steel quickly moved on the new prospect, forming multinational ventures with appropriately aquatic names like Deepsea Ventures to begin developing the capability to mine the seabed.

A black and white illustration of a three-masted sailing ship, the HMS Challenger.

The H.M.S. Challenger expedition revolutionized deep-sea observations. Image from NOAA.

Amid this growing interest, some observers began to raise concerns about who could lay claim to this vast, untapped source of wealth. Among those that began to sound the alarm, the most notable proved to be Arvid Pardo, the Maltese ambassador to the United Nations. In 1967, Pardo offered his early assessment of seabed mining in a three-hour speech before the UN General Assembly.

The exploitation of these valuable resources, Pardo maintained, could provide the foundation for “a peaceful and increasingly prosperous future for all peoples.” But he warned they could also lead to a heedless contest for national control. Therefore, Pardo urged the General Assembly to designate seabed resources the “common heritage of mankind.” The General Assembly responded by creating an ad-hoc committee to study the issue and, after three years of work, officially adopted the common heritage principle.

Waves of Legislation Strike the Seabed Mining Industry

The General Assembly’s work on the seabed eventually led to the convening of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. While two earlier attempts to create a legal regime for the oceans had failed, this final effort proved successful. More than 150 nations participated in the negotiations, which took place over nine years between 1973 and 1982. The resulting United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, often called a constitution for the oceans, generated a multilateral treaty to govern everything from territorial waters and the right of free passage to scientific research and marine conservation.

Perhaps most importantly, it created a regulatory regime to manage seabed mining in areas of the ocean beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. A new body organized by the Convention, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), would oversee this process, issuing contracts for exploration and exploitation, as well as distributing some of the profits to developing nations.

A black and white photograph of Arvid Pardo sitting in front of a wood-grain background.

Arvid Pardo advocated designating seabed resources as “the common heritage of mankind.” Photo by MSacerdoti, 1975.

During the negotiations, this latter aspect of the Convention became the subject of heated controversy. Work on the Law of the Sea occurred during a period of intense rivalry between newly-independent nations in the Global South and their industrialized counterparts in the Global North. In fact, the first substantive session of the Conference took place just a few months after a coalition of developing nations, working through the UN General Assembly, advanced proposal for the New International Economic Order, a program designed to improve their overall position in the global economy.

At the Conference, industrialized nations such as the United States, France, and Japan saw seabed mining as a secure way to access strategic minerals and produce profits for private companies. In contrast, a coalition of developing states led by Mexico, Tanzania, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, among others, saw seabed mining as a way to close the gap between rich and poor nations. At least on paper, the treaty resolved this conflict in favor of developing states.

Yet despite the Convention’s early promise, demand for seabed minerals soon diminished. The global recession of the early 1980s led to falling commodity prices and the continued availability of strategic minerals on land diminished the need for ocean resources. As a result, the goal of using seabed resources to reduce global inequality fell by the wayside.

Rising Conflicts in Seabed Mining Today

In recent years, though, a number of developments have revived interest in seabed mining. Advances in mining technology, falling yields from land-based sources, increasing demand for “green” technology, and continuing global development have all pushed the practice back onto the agenda.

Consequently, developing nations have again looked to seabed mining as a much-needed source of revenue. And companies, whether multinational firms or state enterprises, have taken further steps to make the practice a reality. So far, the ISA has issued 29 exploratory contracts for the deep seabed, most in the Pacific Ocean, though no significant mining has yet taken place.

At the same time, growing concern over the health of the ocean in recent years has introduced another obstacle to seabed mining. Amid the accelerating effects of global warming, massive industrial projects designed to snatch minerals from the seafloor appear likely to undermine efforts to conserve marine ecosystems. With this in mind, scientists and activists have sought to slow the development of seabed mining, if not ban it outright.

A white plume of water and minerals surfacing from a hydrothermal vent.

Hydrothermal vents can draw the interests of countries looking to capitalize on hidden gold deposits. Photo by NOAA, 2004.

While the deep ocean remains largely uncharted, initial research suggests that seabed mining will forever damage marine ecosystems. As a result, some scientists have highlighted the need for greater study and encouraged the adoption of a precautionary principle. Meanwhile, many local communities have fiercely opposed proposed seabed mining projects. Groups like the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, made up of coastal communities in Papua New Guinea, have criticized their government for granting a license to Nautilus Minerals. Moreover, they have demanded that the government ban all seabed mining and invest in local communities instead.

While the Law of the Sea Convention sought to balance economic development with environmental conservation, the tension between these goals has come into sharper relief with the renewed push for seabed mining. During the negotiations, environmental concerns largely centered on pollution from ships. The effects of climate change on the oceans did not enter into discussions. Similarly, the conflict over seabed mining revolved around who would benefit from the practice, not whether it would harm coastal communities or the marine environment.

Seabed mining is neither benign nor inevitable. It has developed in a context shaped by sharp conflict over the vexed relationship between power, wealth, and nature.

The island of Nauru exemplifies this dilemma. A tiny nation in the Pacific Ocean, long subject to colonial exploitation and environmental destruction, Nauru has few options for economic development. Especially since the 1970s, when the island’s phosphate resources ran out, its economy has floundered. In recent years, the government has turned to detaining asylum seekers heading for Australia as a means of foreign investment (a strategy also adopted by Papua New Guinea). While the practice has boosted the island’s economy, it has also led to serious human rights abuses.

Now, in an effort to diversify its economy, Nauru has partnered with DeepGreen, another seabed mining company, to harvest the manganese nodules lying in its coastal waters. Yet even the World Bank has cautioned island nations from turning to seabed mining for a sustainable source of income, and scholars have questioned the government’s claims about the potential windfall from harvesting ocean minerals.

An aerial view of the island of Nauru.

The island of Nauru has partnered with a seabed mining company to harvest manganese nodules from its coastal waters. Photo by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program, 1999.

For those committed to protecting the marine environment, it can be easy to dismiss the need for seabed mining. But many nations are caught in a terrible bind, and it is important to acknowledge why governments with few alternatives might see their coastal waters as an economic resource. The fact that island nations like Nauru are also the most immediately threatened by climate change is only further evidence of the historic injustices that have produced the current environmental crisis.

Solutions That Stay Afloat

Contrary to some depictions, the history of seabed mining shows that the practice is neither benign, nor inevitable. Rather, it has developed in a context shaped by sharp conflict over the vexed relationship between power, wealth, and nature. Given the environmental destruction already unleashed by climate change, and the growing demand to shift to a supposedly green economy, the pressure to pursue seabed mining will only increase. The past cannot provide easy answers to these challenges. But it can help us to reject false choices.

To protect the ocean environment and support the communities that depend on it, we will have to combine different kinds of economic development with more robust environmental protections. For those in the Global North, this will mean joining affected communities in their call to ban seabed mining. It will also mean supporting a massive program of resource transfer alongside pathways for sustainable development already available.

Researchers have shown that everyone can live a good life within planetary boundaries. Not everyone, though, can have a middle-class lifestyle secured through mass production and mass consumption powered by fossil fuels. Living well in the future will require confronting an unjust past. Seabed mining may form only a small part of this struggle, but we ignore the issue at our peril.

Featured Image: A cropped photo of manganese nodules on the seafloor in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean. Photo by GEOMAR, 2015.

Shaine Scarminach is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut. His research interests include U.S. empire, capitalism, and the environment. He is currently writing a dissertation on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Website. Twitter. Contact.