A front-page story in The New York Times: “Secret Data, Tiny Islands and a Quest for Treasures on the Ocean Floor.”
(Diligent Times readers are excused from finishing this post, though I’ve condensed a story that was more than twenty printed pages with photos into a much shorter piece!)
My first thought on seeing that headline was: Who owns the ocean’s riches? Turns out that’s just one element of the drama this article unfolds.
So many issues are involved that bear heavily on the future–not only of our quality of life, but also of our planet.
The story has everything: a worldwide problem; the climate-change inequities between the Haves and Have Nots; the battle between capitalists and nations and environmentalists; some Davids and some Goliaths; toothless international agencies and toothy so-called diplomats; and lots of greed and apparent corruption.
In fact, I think if Netflix were to make it into a docudrama, it would warrant a series—and maybe win some awards.
First, the Conflict
Climate change is making the demand for electric vehicles soar. The manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles depends on cobalt, nickel, and copper. Where are some of the richest sources of these metals?
On the ocean floor.
So it’s not surprising that a twenty-first century version of the gold rush is under way. Huge vacuum cleaning machines are at the ready to sweep up the seabed rocks containing the metals.
The specific area is the Clarion-Clipperton Zone between Mexico and Hawaii, which, the Times reports, “could soon become the world’s first industrial-scale mining site in international waters.”
But, as always, environmental concerns arise. According to the Times:
“Scientists say that more is known about the surface of the moon than about the floor of the ocean, with much of it still unmapped, and estimate that perhaps 90 percent of the species at the bottom of the Pacific remain unclassified.”
An oceanographer named Craig Smith has studied the effect of seabed mining for the government of South Korea and for Lockheed Martin, which have been exploring such efforts.
Smith stresses the importance of preserving the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.
“It’s just not possible to do this without essentially destroying one of the largest wilderness areas left,” he says.
“These are some of the most pristine, biodiverse habitats on a planet where we already have a biodiversity crisis because of destruction on land.”
Various environmental groups share his concern, and France’s President Macron is one of several government leaders who have said there should be no development until scientists can learn more about the seabed and the implications of such a huge industrial project.
Stefan Brager had been a marine biologist for the Seabed Authority, the agency that’s supposed to oversee all this, and now advises the German government.
‘We have no clue what is going to happen. It’s like driving on the wrong side of the road at night and turning off your headlights.”
In 1873, the British Royal Navy HMS Challenger returned from an expedition to map the ocean floor. From the Pacific Ocean, the crew reported, they had dredged up “several peculiar black oval bodies.” These were small nodules—millions of years old—that were rich in various metals—“polymetallic.”
Fast forward about 100 years, and the US, China, Japan, the Soviet Union, and several European countries began looking into the ocean floor in the area that had become known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, containing an abundance of these polymetallic nodules.
The United Nations, seeing all this activity occurring without any guiding rules for mining, stepped in and adopted the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which took effect in 1994 and has since been ratified by 167 countries and the European Union.
Here’s the key:
“The agreement established the Seabed Authority granting it exclusive jurisdiction over mining in international waters—those not under the territorial rule of individual countries—and charged it with the creation of a regulatory system.”
This charge was in accordance with the mission recommended to the UN twenty-seven years earlier by a Malta delegate named Arvid Pardo. The seabed, he said then, was “for the exclusive benefit of mankind as a whole,” with poorer countries receiving “preferential consideration in the event of financial benefits.” What’s more, he said the mining shouldn’t result in “serious impairment of the marine environment.”
I’m casting Arvid Pardo as the visionary in our docudrama. If only events were unfolding accordingly…
Are you surprised to learn that the US, with Reagan at the helm, declined to ratify the treaty for various reasons—including that developing nations gained too much from it and American businesses would be disadvantaged? (The US did agree to generally abide by the provisions—including ones involving navigation and fishing and shipping.)
Back to the Present
The “bad guys” in this scenario (in my retelling—others will see them as sharp entrepreneurs) are the people from an entity called “the Metals Company,” based in Vancouver.
This firm morphed from another, called Nautilus Minerals, but I’ll spare you all the details—except that Gerard Barron is chief executive of the Metals Company now and was an investor in Nautilus when it got a leaping head start on seabed mining.
Barron told Wall Street investors in March of this year that seabed mining has become essential to the US and our allies because China is increasingly dominating the cobalt field, and Russia is a primary supplier of nickel.
That strikes me as a fairly compelling sales pitch.
Though there are a couple of dozen contractors planning for seabed mining, most of them are from various governments, rather than business. (It seems likely that governments’ involvement will increase as the search for these metals accelerates.)
The Metals Company is moving hard to begin the mining in late 2024. They’re planning to open a plant in Texas and are seeking assistance for this purpose—from our government.
This firm projects it will gain more than $31 billion over the twenty-five years the project is expected to take.
How did one company reach this point? By means that are questionable, at best.
When the Seabed Authority was formed, one section of the agency was tasked with assisting developing countries, the Times notes, “in part by reserving metal-rich tracts of the ocean floor and helping to mine them.”
Remember, the Seabed Authority is also supposed to regulate any mining that takes place.
But for such a huge effort—the Times calls it “jurisdiction over half the planet”—the agency has a total of 30 employees who work in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, on a $10 million yearly budget.
There have been internal struggles within the agency, including employees’ complaints about the secretary-general’s excesses, which include securing a chauffeur-driven limousine while preaching austerity and expensing international travel with his family.
There have also been charges of ethics violations “involving a revolving door of consultants and staff lawyers who have worked for companies with matter before the agency.”
So the Metals Company saw an opportunity, and they seized it—fifteen years ago. The company’s executives began gaining a competitive advantage in 2007, when the agency provided it, exclusively, with data about which seabed areas would be most valuable, and then pretty much walled off those areas for the company’s future benefit.
Employees at the Seabed Authority were irate, saying this move contradicted its legal responsibility to help developing countries that have trouble competing with wealthier nations.
Sandor Mulsow, who had leadership positions in the agency before he left in 2019, told the Times in an interview that when the agency acted in this manner,
“You are violating the legal concept behind the Seabed Authority. It’s scandalous.”
The Times documented other abuses, such as a Metals Company contractor mingling with international delegates while they debated agenda items involving the company. These meetings are, of course, supposed to be behind closed doors.
The company’s modus operandi also flouts the Seabed Authority’s intent, which was that developing countries would get first crack at the data.
Instead, armed with the information, the Metals Company found its sponsoring partners: two tiny Pacific islands far from the mining area that have a total population of 120,000 between them—Tonga and Nauru. Nauru has just 11,000 people.
According to Lord Fusitu’a, who had served in the Tonga parliament, he didn’t even have a full hour to review all the regulations the country passed to join with the Metals Company.
“This company set out to game the system and use a poor, developing Pacific nation as the conduit to exploit these resources.”
The current governments of both island nations didn’t comment for the Times article, but they’ve lobbied the agency to pave the way for the Metals Company. Nauru’s president wrote to the agency that the company’s mining would help his land become carbon neutral and financially better off.
Nauru “did not demand much in exchange for sponsorship, having no ability of its own to pursue such an undertaking.” It’s not clear what it was promised, but a Tonga community leader said his nation was getting $2 per ton of what the Metals Company realizes—less that half a percent of the estimated value of the material they plan to mine.
The Seabed Authority will receive a royalty fee when mining begins. Officials insist there’s been no improper sharing of confidential information. The Times’s investigation suggests otherwise. I’m skipping over several pages of their findings.
But they note:
“Three former senior staff members of the agency and a current member of the Seabed Authority Council, the Agency’s governing body, said in interviews that they believed the data sharing in some cases violated agency rules.”
Though the Times says there was no suggestion that the Metals Company acted improperly in requesting the information, that seems well, peculiar.
They’re certainly skirting the rules. Nauru and Tonga are supposed to be in control—not the company. The firm set up nonprofits, with just one employee on each island. The strings are pulled in Australia, the US, and Canada.
The Metals Company got access to yet another reserved area in 2015, with Kiribati, a central Pacific island, as its sponsor.
“These venture-capital-backed companies can smell the desperation in these small island economies,” observed Maureen Penjueli, coordinator of a nonprofit based in Fiji that protects the rights of island nations in the Pacific.
To date, according to a Nauru member of parliament when the legislation to join with the Metals Company was signed in 2015, “They have so far funded a few scholarships and small projects, trying to buy their way in to get us on board. But it has not amounted to much.”
According to Klaas Willaert, an international maritime lawyer who was a delegate to the Seabed Authority from Belgium,
“They are relying on a legal loophole here. They have chosen tiny islands to gain access to the reserved areas. It is exactly the opposite of what the law of the sea intended.”
The Seabed Authority itself has serious problems apart from the excesses at the top that its employees complained about. Poor morale is also attributed to the agency’s lacking the ability to fulfill its mission to serve “the common heritage of mankind.”
Several former employees have filed complaints with the UN, and one said “What they are about is their own benefit, and corruption is everywhere.”
The Metals Company tested a new mining machine in the North Sea and wants to test it in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, where it is predicting that the work of extracting 3600 tons of nodules will have little impact on the aquatic life.
The request has evoked criticisms worldwide, including from the British and German governments and former leading scientists at the Seabed Authority.
I wonder what the US government’s position might be—caught up as we are in technologies that will help us secure a green future.
The embattled Seabed Authority has walled off about forty percent of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone as non-mining areas.
But at its governing council meeting last December, it reached what was called a compromise between those for and against the Metal Company’s efforts—agreeing to accelerate a review of seabed mining rules, while permitting the company to begin operations in 2024.
I find all the implications of this story quite vexing.
We’d like to continue our lifestyles—even as we know we should, and must, reduce our carbon footprints. But at what cost? If we continue forging ahead without even considering the environmental damage we’re doing, what are we leaving for generations that follow?
Yet surely developing nations that have yet to have the luxuries we’ve taken for granted deserve to benefit from the resources surrounding them.
But look whose might predominates in this saga. Clearly the small island nations are getting short shrift from the mighty Metals Company. How do we level that playing field?
And how do we limit the corruption that seems to rear its ugly head whenever the scent of big bucks appears? Is it naive to even think we can do so?
On a separate but related matter, why can’t the UN, an entity so sorely needed in this world, ever live up to its missions? Is its continuing morass inevitable?
Regrettably, the UN can be depended upon to do only what the stronger nations allow–and only when such actions don’t interfere with their nations’ interests.
We’re already seeing that the US is encouraging businesses to invest in the electrification of the auto industry, so it’s reasonable to expect that in the frenzy to obtain these minerals, our country will want to engage in efforts such as this one–possibly even trying to affect the governance of the Seabed Authority.
We’ll need environmentalists to continue trying to exercise political pressure from within the stronger nations such as ours.