The start of industrial-scale seabed mining to extract metals from car batteries from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean was delayed after the international agency tasked with overseeing the work concluded late last week that it needed more time to finalize mining rules.
The action by the International Seabed Authority, which had set a July goal to finalize seabed mining rules, came after pressure from environmentalists and nations opposed to the effort.
The decision will have a more direct impact on the Metals Company, a Canadian-based mining start-up that has partnered with the small island nation of Nauru to obtain the first license to start mining on an industrial scale, perhaps as soon as next year, a timeline that will now be pushed back.
It is unknown how long a delay may be. Maneuvering is underway both by opponents of seabed mining, who want to stop mining altogether, and by supporters, who want to figure out how to get it going around 2025.
The effort to postpone the start has been led by nations such as Costa Rica, Chile and France. The three nations urged other countries that are members of the Seabed Authority’s governing council to agree that no permit authorizing mining in international waters should be granted until regulations are finalized. This is likely not to happen until 2025 at the earliest, the agency agreed.
“We are on the ocean side,” said Gina Guillén Grillo, Costa Rica’s representative to the Seabed Authority who has helped lead opposition to seabed mining. “We know that there is not enough science. Starting right now would be a disaster.
Gerard Barron, chief executive of the Metals Company, said he remained optimistic that his company and its partner, Nauru, would get the approval they needed to launch the effort in the coming years.
As the Seabed Authority continues its work to determine environmental standards, as well as the royalty rate to be paid by mining contractors, among other issues, the Metals Company will continue to lobby other nations, Barron said. The company will try to convince them that mining the ocean floor is better for the environment than surface mining in places like Indonesia or the Congo, where battery metals such as nickel, cobalt and copper are now produced.
“Hopefully we can keep the schedule in order,” Barron said.
The Metals Company and Nauru, along with the Chinese delegation, which has also been aggressively pursuing seabed mining, lobbied unsuccessfully at last week’s meeting for the Seabed Authority to set a target of finalizing regulations by 2024.
Mr Barron said Metals Company investors, which include Allseas Group, a Swiss-based company that specializes in offshore pipeline operations and is looking for a way to transition into work that can support the electric vehicle industry, remain committed to the project.
As it stands now, the Jamaica-based Seabed Authority has issued 31 contracts for exploration work in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. These agreements allow sponsoring nations and their contractors to collect small amounts of cobalt-rich seabed rocks or crusts while collecting data on the environmental impact of the process, such as the risk that plumes of sediment could pose to other aquatic life when the rocks are uplifted.
The most intense area of focus is the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a remote stretch between Mexico and Hawaii where seafloor rocks have the highest concentration of metals. The rocks sit 2.5 miles deep, so deep that remote-operated machines are needed to bring them to collection boats.
This is the region where Metals Company wants to start mining operations, convinced it can generate $30 billion in net after-tax cash flow over the 25-year life of the initial project. If successful, this small company that has never turned a profit would become one of the world’s largest suppliers of the key metals needed for electric vehicle batteries.
One of the biggest questions now is when Nauru will apply to start mining on an industrial scale. You can do so before the regulations are finalized, knowing that it will likely take at least a year for the application to be reviewed and then processed by the Seabed Authority.
If Nauru and the Metals Company are to wait until the regulations are finalized, seabed mining would not start before 2026 amid continued opposition.
Environmentalists who have partnered with nations like Costa Rica and France to challenge seabed mining have said the delay would buy them more time to recruit additional countries that want to see a long-term pause or even moratorium in effect. Nearly two dozen nations have now endorsed some form of retention, up from just a handful a year ago.