Surging demand for metals used in electric vehicle batteries has kicked off an international race to mine the deep seas with no rules set thus far. Canada, France, Germany and some other countries want to pause deep-sea mining because of its potential environmental consequences, but other countries including China, Norway and Russia argue that deep-sea mining is less destructive than land mining and are pushing ahead to establish a framework. All of this is driven by groups such as the World Economic Forum, EU and members of the G-7 who are pushing for “climate action” of all kinds which increases demand for minerals by multiples above current consumption.

Recently, the United Nations-chartered International Seabed Authority (I.S.A.) missed a deadline to establish a regulatory framework, so companies can apply for licenses before rules are final, potentially as early as this month. I.S.A. is an independent intergovernmental body established under the authority of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to regulate mining activities on the ocean floor as well as protect seabed ecosystems. Representatives from the agency, which is made up of 167 member states and the European Union, have gathered in Jamaica for two weeks to debate what should happen next. The area of international waters most coveted for mining — a 3,100 mile stretch out in the Pacific known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone — is so vast, and research into mining’s potential impacts so costly, that the authority has struggled to develop workable regulations. That area covers 4.5 million square kilometers.

Seabed exploitation ventures, however, want to get started. For example, the Metals Company, a Canadian business, has an agreement with the Pacific Island nation of Nauru to sponsor its deep-sea mining endeavors. The firm showcases giant robots that would comb the seafloor, scooping up the metals. It estimates there are enough nodules in the area they want to mine to produce 280 million car batteries. Despite preferring final rules, the company reserves the right to move forward without them. Nauru is the smallest republic in the world, with a land mass of just 21 square kilometers.

According to Gerard Barron CEO of the Metals Company, some of the countries calling for a moratorium have exploration licenses, which allow them to experiment with mining on a small scale for research purposes. As many as 31 exploration licenses have been issued by the I.S.A., sponsored by 14 nations, including Nauru, Tonga, Kiribati, China, Russia, South Korea, India, Britain, France, Poland, Brazil, Japan, Jamaica and Belgium. China is a major proponent of deep-sea mining, with three entities currently holding exploration licenses issued by the I.S.A., including the state-owned conglomerate Minmetals. Barron believes representatives are deciding not whether deep-sea mining can begin, but when.

A United Nations convention establishes waters beyond 12 nautical miles from a territorial coast as communal property, which means that profits from minerals discovered there should be shared to some extent. The I.S.A. is responsible for setting up the structure for profit-sharing and taxing of mining efforts, as well as the legal and ecological guidelines. It could also ban large-scale commercial mining altogether though it is not clear whether there is a legal path for such a ban or even a pause. Critics say that its dual role as mining regulator and custodian of the seabed environment is contradictory, that the body has been leaning too far in the direction of corporate interests, and it lacks transparency and accountability.

The deep seabed contains potato-sized rocks with nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese that EV manufacturers need. The number of EVs on the road worldwide is expected to increase from 30 million now to about 300 million by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. Securing materials to build them all is perilous for automakers, in part because the mining required threatens new ecological damage and human rights problems that can hurt an auto company’s reputation, especially in rich countries who consume most of the vehicles.

A study published in the journal Nature argues that seabed mining could interfere with tuna migration patterns. Also, most of the species far out in the Pacific where the nodules are most plentiful have yet to be discovered. Some of the species live on the nodules or feed off nutrients they sustain.

The World Wildlife Fund has been leading an effort to have businesses pledge not to finance seabed mining or source seafloor materials in their supply chains. More than 30 companies, including BMW, Google, Samsung, Volvo and Volkswagen, have signed on. Similarly, prominent banks in Britain, such as Lloyds and Standard Chartered, are refusing to do business with deep-sea mining entities, despite Britain’s world-leading EV car mandates. And seafood industry groups have demanded a moratorium.

Economics of Sea-Bed Mining Questionable

The growth in electric vehicles will increase demand for metals like cobalt, copper and nickel that are used in EV batteries. Electric vehicles are expected to make up about 35 percent of cars sold globally by 2030, up from 14 percent in 2022, according to projections from the International Energy Agency. But critics say that the expense and logistics of mining in the remote ocean and transporting metals back to land raise doubts about whether deep-sea mining can be profitable. They argue that other possibilities such as alternative materials and programs for reusing and recycling batteries could satisfy demand for critical metals without needing deep-sea mining.

As many as 14 countries have called for a moratorium or suspension of all mining activities, including France, Germany, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Vanuatu. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, which consists of more than 100 environmental groups (including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Worldwide Fund for Nature) has also been campaigning to stop deep-sea mining. Then again, these groups are pressing for more “green” or “clean” energy sources, including mandating electric vehicles.

But seabed mining supporters say that existing mining is worse for the environment, and that deep-sea mining could help wrestle control of critical metals from China and Russia. Mark Brown, the prime minister of the Cook Islands, said at a U.N. climate conference last year, “do not tell me to ignore the potential for promoting the green transition by not exploring these much-needed minerals for the green revolution that sit in my ocean.” He referred to claims of environmental concern from countries that “destroyed the planet through decades of profit-driven development” as patronizing.


Deep sea mining for critical minerals is now seen as a way to get the minerals needed for EV batteries that China has a stranglehold on, mainly due to its cheap coal-fired power used to process the metals and its eagerness to construct heavy industrial facilities to do so. Thus, obtaining the metals is only one part of the struggle for dominance of the EV battery supply chain.

Whether deep-sea mining goes forward is dependent on a U.N. agency that is in control of both the regulatory activities and protection of the seabed ecosystems. Exploratory licenses have been issued to a number of nations, but there is dissension among the agency members as to whether deep sea mining should go forward due to possible environmental damage to the seabed and ecosystem. The economics of the endeavor is also questionable due to the expense and logistics of mining in the distant ocean and bringing the minerals back to land.

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