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Extractive ambitions and contested justifications

Mining proponents also argue that exploitation of the deep seabed is necessary to source minerals for humanity’s renewable energy future.[1] However, a 2016 report from the Institute for Sustainable Futures challenges the view that current renewable energy markets rely on seabed minerals (Teske et al. 2016). It finds that, even with the most ambitious energy scenarios and growth in demand, a transition to 100 percent renewables is possible without recourse to deep-sea mining (2016: 5, 37). Along these lines, and exploiting the growing public resistance against seabed mining, large corporations such as Google, BMW, and Volvo recently pledged not to use seabed minerals, and publicly distanced themselves from the industry (Sanderson 2021).

And yet the seabed mining regime appears to be pressing forward despite the concerns of marine scientists about how little is known of deep-ocean ecologies.[2] Avoiding losses from 24/7 deep-sea mining operating over 30 years is unlikely (Niner et al. 2018). The ISA’s Secretary General, Michael Lodge, acknowledges seabed mining will involve “the crushing of living organisms, the removal of substrate habitat and the creation of sediment plumes,” as well as the risk of “environmental damage through malfunctions in the riser and transportation system, hydraulic leaks, and noise and light pollution” (Lodge n.d.). Neither is remediation for seabed mining feasible given the likely material, temporal, and spatial scales of the losses.[3] Against this background, claims that seabed mining will save the planet are unconvincing.

In a recent interview, University of Hawaii oceanographer Jeff Drazen said: “We’re about to make one of the biggest transformations that humans have ever made to the surface of the planet. We’re going to strip-mine a massive habitat, and once it’s gone, it isn’t coming back” (Jeff Drazen cited in Hylton 2020). Asked about the potential environmental impacts of deep seabed mining, ISA’s Michael Lodge effectively gaslighted the widespread concern of marine biologists, conservationists, and concerned publics by responding: “I don’t believe people should worry that much” (Michael Lodge cited in Hylton 2020).

[1] David Heydon, CEO of mining corporation DeepGreen claims that seabed mining will “save the planet.” Wil S. Hylton, “History’s Largest Mining Operation is About to Begin,” Atlantic, 2020,


[2] See for example: C.L. Van Dover et al., “Biodiversity Loss from Deep-Sea Mining,” Nature Geoscience 10, no. 7 (2017): 464–465; C.L. Van Dover et al., “Research Is Needed to Inform Environmental Management of Hydrothermally Inactive and Extinct Polymetallic Sulfide (PMS) Deposits,” Marine Policy 121 (2020): 104183.

[3] See for example: Craig R. Smith et al., “The Near Future of the Deep-Sea Floor Ecosystems,” in Aquatic Ecosystems: Trends and Global Prospects, ed. Nicholas V. C. Polunin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 334–350; Niner, “Deep-Sea Mining.”

*This text is adapted from Reid, S. ‘Imagining Justice With the Abyssal Ocean’ (Reid 2022)

Ghost octopus, among the 90 percent of unknown/yet to be described marine beings, is found at 4,290 meters depth. Image: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Hohonu Moana, 2016.

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Hylton, W. S. 2020. “History’s Largest Mining Operation Is About to Begin.” The Atlantic, 2020.

Lodge, Michael. n.d. “The International Seabed Authority and Deep Seabed Mining.” United Nations Chronicle. United Nations. Accessed November 2, 2021.

Niner, Holly J., Jeff A. Ardron, Elva G. Escobar, Matthew Gianni, Aline Jaeckel, Daniel O. B. Jones, Lisa A. Levin, et al. 2018. “Deep-Sea Mining With No Net Loss of Biodiversity—An Impossible Aim.” Frontiers in Marine Science 5.

Reid, Susan. 2022. “Imagining Justice with the Abyssal Ocean.” In Laws of the Sea: Interdisciplinary Currents. London: Routledge.

Sanderson, Henry. 2021. “BMW, Volvo and Google Vow to Exclude Use of Ocean-Mined Metals.” Financial Times, March 31, 2021.

Teske, Sven, Nick Florin, Elsa Dominish, and Damien Giurco. 2016. “RENEWABLE ENERGY AND DEEP-SEA MINING: SUPPLY, DEMAND AND SCENARIOS.” Sydney: ISF.