As corporations fight to control the Pacific, Biden must act to protect it

Dec 6, 2021

Amid the global push for progress on climate change and the growing biodiversity crisis, the little-known International Seabed Authority (ISA) will meet this week to discuss the fate of our planet at a sparsely attended meeting in Kingston, Jamaica. As the ISA plots a course forward, the mining industry is turning its sights to the deep sea to mine the ocean floor. At the same time, many people concerned about the unknown impacts of deep seabed mining, including Indigenous groups who have called the Pacific home for thousands of years, are fighting back by calling on President Biden to step up, utilize the diplomatic and economic leverage of the United States, and protect our ocean.

Once thought to be a desolate place, new research demonstrates that the deep sea is a vibrant and thriving ecosystem full of remarkable creatures, vitally interconnected to the rest of the planet. The very nodules, which mining companies seek to exploit, serve as habitat for many deep-sea species that have yet to be fully studied, and destroying their habitats could render them extinct before we even understand them. Mining could also send sediment plumes drifting hundreds to thousands of miles, which can choke and blind sea life and contaminate ocean food chains with toxins and heavy metals and risking human health. Additionally, mining could destabilize the vast amounts of carbon and methane currently stored safely in the seabed and reduce the ocean’s ability to sequester and store greenhouse gases.

These risks are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as we don’t understand the full range of impacts seabed mining could have on our oceans or our climate. It’s clear more time is needed to conduct the necessary research to determine if mining could ever be conducted safely. Nonetheless, some parties are urging the ISA to authorize mining now, despite the fragility of deep-sea ecosystems and the significant environmental and social threats mining poses.


In July, the Pacific island nation of Nauru utilized an untested legal tool to trigger a process under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea that could grant mining contracts to the deep seabed area between Mexico and Hawaii within two years, much sooner than even the most ardent mining supporters anticipate having the knowledge to proceed safely.

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The United States could be directly impacted by the mining exploitation permits pending in the Pacific, as American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and Hawaii are all within close proximity to proposed mining routes. A familiar story is at risk of repeating itself: Colonialist extraction threatens Pacific islands, including Indigenous people, who then bear the costs of exploitation.

For decades, military goals and commercial profit have overridden the health and sovereignty of Pacific peoples. Deep seabed mining could irreparably harm the ocean that carries immeasurable cultural, spiritual and economic significance to Pacific Islanders. The Biden administration must ensure these islands are not again used as sacrifice zones as foreign entities look to deploy untested extractive technology on a massive scale.

The mining industry is framing deep seabed mining as the best — or even the only — way to obtain the minerals we need to transition to a clean energy economy. But don’t be fooled. While it’s true demand for these minerals is growing, deep seabed mining is one of the highest-risk ways to obtain them. Instead, we can source critical minerals responsibly and sustainably by utilizing new battery chemistries and ramping up comprehensive recycling measures that make use of the minerals that are already in the supply chain.

We can decarbonize our energy systems quickly, but we can do so without deep seabed mining. A broad consensus of corporations, governments, and scientists already understand this. Google, Microsoft, BMW, Volkswagen and Volvo all voluntarily committed not to source minerals from seabed mining. Additionally, 81 governments and agencies and 577 NGOs at the IUCN World Conservation Congress passed a resolution for a moratorium on seabed mining, with over 600 marine scientists signing a similar letter. Just last week, Earthjustice and a coalition of conservationists, Indigenous rights advocates, political leaders and scientists sent a letter to Biden urging him to use his authority to stop the ISA from opening the ocean to deep seabed mining. This growing momentum for a moratorium underscores the ecological costs of prospective mining are too great to move forward without having a better understanding of what stands to be lost.

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While it’s true we need critical minerals to transition to the clean energy economy, we don’t have to rely on the false choice presented by mining companies. Biden has an opportunity to create a sustainable supply chain that sets the foundation for an equitable clean energy future for generations to come without sacrificing our ocean and the people who rely on it. The president can act today and utilize the United States’ economic and political standing to urge the ISA’s 167 member nations to ensure no exploitation contracts are granted for mining in the high seas until the risks are better understood. Within U.S. waters, the president can also prevent progress toward seabed mining until measures are taken to understand and protect deep sea resources. As the ISA deliberates, Biden must oppose the reckless advancement of deep seabed mining to ensure a just clean energy transition and secure the fate of our oceans.

Andrea Folds is legislative counsel and lobbyist working on issues impacting lands, wildlife and oceans for Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest environmental law organization.
Jake Kornack is a legislative assistant at Earthjustice.

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